Language: The Thing that Means Stuff


When I signed on to the job of Beginning Definer for the Lexicographical Committee I thought I would be good at it but I wasn’t.  My first definitions were due the next day.  I wasn’t sure exactly what was wrong with what I had.  But I didn’t feel confident.  The best one:

TABLE n A thing things go on

Seemed pretty good until I noticed it seemed identical with:

GROUND n. A thing things go on.

But I knew table wasn’t ground so they couldn’t both be right.  And some of the rest were just lousy:

GO v. Not being there anymore, opposite of stop, it makes you different place-wise, if you went someplace this thing was what you did for that

I was pretty sure “went” was just the past tense of “go” so in addition to being prolix it was tautological.

I decided to ask for some help from my supervisor on a tough one.  BIOLOGY.  All I had was

Biology: n. when a scientist or a group of scientists or someone who is not a scientist but at the moment is doing science set themselves to thinking about trees or hearts or dinosaurs etc.

“Etc.!” That was as shit-poor as my

Man: n. The one that does, loves, dies etc.

I was embarrassed to even go into my supervisor’s office.  He looked at me in the kindly way affected by bulies worldover before a pounce.

“Look here, Kaplan.  Psychology is the science of the mind.  Geology is the science of the Earth.  So biology is…”

“Um?  Knowing?  Um?  Er.  Frogs?”

“The science of life.”

“Just write that?”

“Just write that.”

So I returned to my cubicle and typed the definition on my work station.  I saw it blinking back at me.  I was alone.  The office was dark.  I had enjoyed office-mocha, a blend of coffee and swiss miss instant cocoa to give myself a boost.  I felt clammy. 

I looked at what I had typed.

“Biology n. The Science of Life”

I read it.  My supervisor had dictated it.  I should have been satisfied but I wasn’t.  Because wasn’t it ultimately unhelpful?   As unhelpful as an alien dictionary that defined the Wazzlegore as n. a tool for adjusting Bavlibonies?  What was needed, whatever my supervisor thought, smug in his office with a chair, was a definition of life!

And I realized it only scratched the surface and I started typing:

“Biology n. The science of that thing which it is you don’t have it when you are dead but it is also the thing that certain moments have, certain moments not like this one, but there will be some moments some day I am sure, also that which is possessed by some of my thoughts but not others, not the ones I have when I am here, except the ones that I have that are paradoxically of hatred and fear for my surroundings because…” 

Screen after screen filled up with my caffeinated mad but so so lucid prolixity: defining, defining, defining, and then along the way it became so obvious

Define v. Putting limits around meaning and sometimes, so help me, that’s the only way to know what’s on the other side.

And then I finished up and then put the perfect ending to my perfect forty-page definition of biology, noun.

“Opposite: definition, the science of death.”


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