When I search for it on Google it gives me this answer: "a basic lexical unit of a language consisting of one word or several words, the elements of which do not separately convey the meaning of the whole."

Here it says that it does not convey the meaning of the whole. But another website I found this definition: "A lexeme is the smallest or minimum unit of lexicon in a language that bears some meaning."

What does it actually mean?

3 Answers 3


To put it simply, a lexeme is something that needs a dictionary entry. You can't figure out its meaning by breaking it into smaller pieces, so you have to look it up or figure the meaning out from context.

Let's look at a couple examples:

  • Dog is a lexeme. It should be obvious you can't break it into smaller pieces and figure out its meaning that way.
  • Kick the bucket is also a lexeme, even though it's made up of several words. You might try breaking it down into kick, the, and bucket, but you won't be able to figure out its meaning that way, so it needs to have its own dictionary entry.

If it helps, you can think of lexemes as entries in your own mental dictionary.

Here's how one prominent linguist defines the term lexeme:

lexeme (n.) A term used by some linguists to refer to the minimal distinctive unit in the semantic system of a language. Its original motivation was to reduce the ambiguity of the term word, which applied to orthographic/phonological, grammatical and lexical levels, and to devise a more appropriate term for use in the context of discussing a language's vocabulary. The lexeme is thus postulated as the abstract unit underlying such sets of grammatical variants as walk, walks, walking, walked, or big, bigger, biggest. Idiomatic phrases, by this definition, are also considered lexemic (e.g. kick the bucket (= 'die')). Lexemes are the units which are conventionally listed in dictionaries as separate entries.

(A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics, 6th ed., Crystal 2008, p.276)


My first answer was off and quite fuzzy.

The term lexeme was coined by the American linguist B. L. Whorf, and referred to in this book: lexeme

FOUND INSIDE - PAGE 371 The term lexeme, coined by B.L. Whorf (Whorf 1938/1956) on the model of morpheme and phoneme (discussed below), is a convenient designation for the lexical word, an item for which a lexical entry is necessary in a linguistic description; ...

It refers to the root meaning of a word: so, booking and book: book is the lexeme for bookings (reservations)

As defined by Whorf himself in 1940 here:

Lexeme (The word or stem as an item of vocabulary and as a part analyzed and abstracted from sentence words): [the description continues]

Lexeme are not expressions.


origin of term


Both of the definitions are correct. It means lexemes have a meaning but when a lexemes is broken into different parts, different parts do not convey the meaning of the whole.

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