NOTES on Explaining a Concept, Etymological Exploring:
Defining Key Terms,  Abstract/BIG Ideas

Abstract words refer to intangible things, things that can't be touched physically, like feelings, ideals, concepts and qualities. Concrete words use the five-senses and real world 3D experiences that make abstracts knowable, so we can relate, understand and communicate them.

For writing a complete essay about a concept, "Big Idea," term, topic, etc., here are some suggestions for "Big Ideas" to explore, define and explain in a definition essay. A Definition Essay for this assignment is a mix of  explanation, narrative/reflective, quoted definitions, word history and 5+ outside sources in about 1250-1500wds. Here is a non-documented (personal, narrative-reflective) example: Informal Definition Essay |and  a more formal peer reviewed paper [see other peer reviewed examples below].

Abuse, Anger, Authority, Beauty, Belief, Betrayal, Charity, Compassion, Concept, Confusion, Courage, Cowardice, Cruelty, Duty, Fame, Faith, Fear/Foreboding, Forgiveness, Friendship, Generosity, Greed/avarice, Grief, Guilt, Happiness, Infidelity/fidelity, Innocence, Insanity/sanity, Jealously, Justice, Knowledge, Liberty, Malice, Opinion, Providence, Religion, Reverence, Sacred, Technology, Transgression, Sympathy, Temptation, Understand, Vanity, Vengeance, Wisdom .... Latinate terms may be the most fruitful, and mixing in related Anglo-Saxon OR COLLOQUIALISMS  will produce a very complete profile of the term/word/concept. 

Terminology that is specific to a certain discipline ( law, medicine, physics, etc.) might also be useful concepts to explore, including their denotative meanings, connotative meanings, origins/derivation, and current uses.

For virtually any kind of writing, defining key terms is a crucial step in successful communication. Early in any essay it pays to clearly establish the meaning and implications of the topic, concept/idea, event or historical period, etc. that will focus the writing: see step-by-step Definition Essay HOW-TO Word Roots |  Prefix/Suffix chart | Etymology Dictionary and other supports on main page. Wikipedia is not a formal source. It can serve as an entry level way to access information, which then can be verified in more formal sources. Anglo-Saxon words | Latinate | Germanic/Latinate list | Language Trees

To research the derivation and development of a word or term in English, it is important to include the:

  1. current denotative (dictionary) meanings of the word(s) that comprise the term--even in other fields: see The Free Dictionary,,  Webster's, encyclopedias  and OED on COCC Lib. research page, etc. For denotative definitions, use only formal reference sources, not even "expert" opinions.

  2. current connotative (implied or subjective/emotional) meanings

  3. pertinent synonyms (similar meaning)

  4. as relevant, other grammatical forms of the word, i.e.,  as noun, verb, modifier.
  5. various meanings or implications that have identified the term since its first historical usage.

Along with these key elements, the writer should also include the meaning and implications of the term, as they intend to focus on them. This writing can include information like what may be revealed in a part 6 of the exploratory loop, cluster, free-writing as well as, other points from personal thinking, experience and reading/research.

A very brief, but useful informal profile of a term (or two closely related terms) might appear something like the following concept profile and writing proposal (however, more probing and thorough research is better and more fitting for a concept based essay....). For an historical event, period or concept having to do with a certain field or profession, an encyclopedia is another source that can help identify a general summary of the focus.  Also here is a guide for Exploring (basic glossing) a Word  (FYI, be glad we're not doing this: The Leipzig Glossing Rules...unless you want to....;-)

The following EXAMPLE explores the essential, etymological meaning of the word "test" based on material from, and Kathleen Taylor:

Test: Whether to Try or to Scrutinize 

The educational application of the term test dates back little more than a century. That 19th-century sense was a spin-off of the test that originated in the 14th century.
The Middle English ancestor of test named a vessel in which metals were assayed, or analyzed  which is related the to the "inspect or scrutinize carefully" meaning of to" examine." Word origin and history of test according to

late 14c., "small vessel used in assaying precious metals," from O.Fr. test, from L. testum "earthen pot," related to testa "piece of burned clay, earthen pot, shell" (cf. L. testudo "tortoise") and texere "to weave" (cf. Lith. tistas "vessel made of willow twigs;" see texture). Sense of "trial or examination to determine the correctness of something" is recorded from 1590s. The verb in this sense is from 1748. The connecting notion is "ascertaining the quality of a metal by melting it in a pot." Test-tube is from 1846; test-tube baby is recorded from 1935. Test Act was the name given to various laws in English history meant to exclude Catholics and Nonconformists from office, especially that of 1673, repealed 1828. Test drive (v.) is first recorded 1954.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that test developed its educational sense, which often refers to a simpler, less formal version of an examination. The sense of examination, which, according to Merriam-Webster, names “an exercise designed to examine progress or test qualification or knowledge,” first appeared in print in the early 17th century; the shortened form exam dates to 1872.

Like test, examination is itself a 14th-century coinage. Its ancestry includes the Latin examen, which denotes the tongue of a balance. And as 21st-century educators can attest, devising a good examination is often a balancing act.

I will explore the implications and application of this term/concept as it relates to the process of measuring and evaluating student learning.

NOTE: The above information was derived from material on, and Taylor, Kathleen. Phi Delta Kappan, Nov2009, Vol. 91 Issue 3, p7-7, 1/3p

Establishing these definitions also contributes to the authority of the writer and a foundation from which to develop the essay. Once that step is completed, the central thesis can be developed in a series of key points, supports and evidence which create a necessary conclusion reflecting that thesis.

A basic Thesis Statement/Sentence for this kind of paper must: 

[sample:  Health care [topic] should be a personal responsibility [opinion], because [reason] government should not make decisions for people.]

Here are several model papers but not exactly like the format below:                 

The general layout of the paper is as follows, all in MLA format:

[Two-Part Thematic Title]  Topic : Position/Opinion   [e.g. The term Exploration: An Essential Concept in Business and Biology ]

I. INTRODUCTORY SECTION (Thesis sentence (TS) underlined in last of paragraph 1 or 2  in this section. For a definition paper, a TS might be: "Exploration" is a word with many uses, and (among many other fields) is commonly found in business, biology and personal contexts. )   So, the paper would expand and explain main elements presented in the TS: for example, 1. the most interesting or common implications of the word/idea and (as presented in the TS) how it it used in a specific 2. business, 3. biology and 4. personal context (your experience with exploring some thing?). Each of those focused areas will serve as a way to organize the ideas and include outside sources for evidence. Be SURE that every bit of explanation either uses a signal for personal explanation ( e.g. We all know that.... or In my experience... or Clearly..... or I understand...) OR a clear signal phrase to identify a source you are using AND an end-cite (Brown) to indicate where the previous material came from. Exact quotes need a specific location of where they were found, the page number or if no page is identified, then a paragraph number.

            (In First Paragraph (with any sources cited--i.e., author last n
ame and page # or domain name, if no author/page is available),
              these 3 elements, NOT necessarily in this order...)

       1. Personal comment to introduce/set up topic/issue
       2. Background of topic (as it may come from a primary focus text) or why it is interesting/important...
       3. Example/anecdote to illustrate topic

            (In next 2-3+ Paragraphs--with sources cited)

1. Define key term(s)/concept, synonyms, relevant grammatical forms. All these special uses (not as the words generally function...)
            should be italicized to show that they themselves are the focus of the writing not being used as they normally
       2. Etymology
Explain Idea/terms as used in paper topic (see 1-5 above)
[use Control+F to access "Find" feature in Word to replace any non-italicized occurrences of
          the  word.]

    II. BODY SECTION: presents the core of the thesis, the reasoning (and key points of opposing views if important to explaining)

            (In next 3+ Body Paragraphs--1-2  for each key point/definition+reason and evidence with sources cited)

       1. Explanation of topic/issue in more depth than in intro.
       2. Presentation of clear reasoning that supports thesis
       3. Evidence to support reasoning from at least 3 from outside sources
       4. ONLY If relevant: Key opposing points and why they don't stand up to the thesis
       5. Personal commentary as needed to interpret and make connections that create unity

    III. CONCLUSION SECTION: sums up the findings that prove the thesis

            (In Final 2-3 paragraphs--with any sources cited)

       1. Restates key thesis points, reasoning and evidence
       2. Refers to opening points or examples to close the "circle" of writing
       3. Personal comment that wraps up the thesis and writer's thinking
       4. Ending that suggests a brief remedy, next "step" or "take-away" regarding the issues in the thesis

    IV. WORKS CITED: (FYI: EasyBib-citation maker and MLA 7 handbooks)  On a separate page, headed WORKS CITED, an MLA listing of the 3-5 sources actually appearing in paper. Each source can be used more than once in the paper, but needs only one listing in the Works Cited. The Works Cited listing DOES NOT number the entries.


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