[glos, glaws]
gloss [Gr.,=tongue], explanatory note on a word or words of a text, usually written between the lines or in a margin of a manuscript. In copying a manuscript, a copyist sometimes incorporated a gloss in the text, so that the copy departed from the original. The gloss may be in a language different from that of the text. Old glosses on the Bible have value as evidence of tradition, as have glosses in civil and canon law.
This article is about the literary term. For other uses, see Gloss (disambiguation).

A gloss is a brief summary of a word's meaning, equivalent to the dictionary entry of that word, but only a word or two in length. It is typically used for the meaning of a word in another language, and hence a simple translation.

A gloss can often specifically refer to a note made in the margins or between the lines of a book, in which the meaning of the text in its original language is explained. As such, glosses can vary in thoroughness and complexity, from simple marginal notations of words one reader found difficult or obscure, to entire interlinear translations of the original text and cross references to similar passages.

A collection of glosses is a glossary (though glossary also means simply a collection of specialized terms with their meanings). A collection of medieval legal glosses, made by so called glossators, commenting legal texts, is called an apparatus. The compilation of glosses into glossaries was the beginning of lexicography, and the glossaries so compiled were in fact the first dictionaries.

In theology

Glosses were a primary format used in medieval Biblical theology, and were studied and memorized almost upon their own merit, without regards to the author. Many times a Biblical passage was heavily associated with a particular gloss, whose truth was taken for granted by many theologians.

In law

A phenomenon similar to that which occurred in theology also occurred in medieval law: the glosses on Roman law and Canon law created for many subjects standard starting points of reference, a socalled sedes materiae (literally: seat of the matter). In common law countries, the term "judicial gloss" refers to what is considered an authoritative or "official" interpretation of a statute or regulation by a judge. Judicial glosses are often very important in avoiding contradictions between statutes, and determining the constitutionality of various provisions of law.

In philology

Glosses are of some importance in philology, especially if one language—usually, the language of the author of the gloss—has left few texts of its own. The Reichenau glosses, for example, gloss the Latin Vulgate Bible in an early form of one of the Romance languages, and as such give insight into late Vulgar Latin at a time when that language was not often written down. A series of glosses in the Old English language to Latin Bibles give us a running translation of Biblical texts in that language; see Old English Bible translations. Glosses of Christian religious texts are also important for our knowledge of Old Irish. Glosses frequently shed valuable light on the vocabulary of otherwise little attested languages; they are less reliable for syntax, because many times the glosses follow the word order of the original text, and translate its idioms literally.

In linguistics

In linguistics, a simple gloss in running text is usually indicated in single quotation marks, following the transcription of a foreign word. For example:

  • A Cossack longboat is called a chaika ‘seagull’.
  • The moose gains its name from the Algonquian mus or mooz (‘twig eater’).

A longer or more complex transcription requires an interlinear gloss. This is often placed between a text and its translation when it is important to understand the structure of the language being glossed.

A semi-standardized set of parsing conventions and grammatical abbreviations is explained in the Leipzig Glossing Rules

Glossing signed languages

Sign languages are typically transcribed word-for-word by means of an English gloss written in all capitals. Prosody is often glossed as superscript English words, with its scope indicated by brackets.

Fingerspelling is transcribed directly; this is commonly indicated with either a hash (#WIKI) or by hyphenation (W-I-K-I).

In sociology

Talcott Parsons used the word "gloss" to describe how mind constructs reality. We are taught how to "put the world together" by others who subscribe to a consensus reality — which many disciplines, Zen for example, strive to overcome. Studies have shown that our brains "filter" the data coming from our senses. This "filtering" is largely unconsciously created and determined by biology, cultural constructs including language, personal experience, belief systems, etcetera. Different cultures create different glosses.


  • Meinolf Schumacher: "…der kann den texst und och die gloß. Zum Wortgebrauch von 'Text' und 'Glosse' in deutschen Dichtungen des Spätmittelalters." In 'Textus' im Mittelalter. Komponenten und Situationen des Wortgebrauchs im schriftsemantischen Feld, edited by Ludolf Kuchenbuch and Uta Kleine, 207-27, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2006.


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