The definition of definition is definition. While that’s true, a definition is not a repeat of its subject. A definition is the way of defining a word, a phrase, or a symbol in a clear, logical, and precise format. To define means to explain, describe, and clarify in the context of definition. In the 14th century came the first use of the word definition. The word originated from the Middle French word definicion, which meant to define a boundary either physically or as in making decisions–the boundary of ideas. The Latin word definitio, to limit, also played a part in coining the word definition. Later in the late 14th century, the meaning of “essential nature” was discovered. It wasn’t until 1550 when the word definition had its connection to words, representing the meaning of words. In 1889, another definition of definition was inserted, meaning the sharpness of an image. This meaning is now used in modern technology, determining the pixel density of a computer screen.
Other than the meaning of words, definition can also mean the act of defining/describing. For example in the sentence “Fred’s political power is past definition,” the “past definition” means Fred’s political power is inconceivably large. Definition also has the definition of outline, limits, and boundary. Such as in the example “the definition of Fred’s power…”
Usually, the definition of a word or phrase is presented in a gloss, located alphabetically in a dictionary. Since the goal in a definition is to present the explanation as clearly as possible, the words used to describe the subject is usually commonly used and easy to understand. However, not all words in English are easy to explain, therefore cross-referencing between the definition and the definition of a word in the definition is usually required. Interestingly enough, if one look upon this system philosophically, he or she may discover the limitation of this system, especially since the English language is composed of a limited number of words. For example, let the letter A to Z represent every word in English, If the definition of A is B, and the definition of B is C, this method would soon reach an end. That is of course unless the definition of Z is A, and the system cycles, which is precisely how the modern lexicons operate. Nonetheless, this cycling of definition does produce what is called a circular definition. To give a simple demonstration,
lemon: The fruit of a lemon tree.
lemon tree: Tree which produces lemon
If one understood neither lemon nor the lemon tree, both of its definitions are useless as they cycle back to one another. Thus this condition becomes an infinite regress. The only way out of the loop is for the person to have an existing understanding of one of the terms initially, or another non-recursive definition. In conclusion, definitions must be clear, descriptive, and non-recursive for it to be understood by the widest audience, which is its original intent.
a common joke in dictionaries defining the word recursive
definition. Dictionary.com. Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition. HarperCollins Publishers. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/definition (accessed: November 20, 2012).
definition. Dictionary.com. Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, Historian. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/definition (accessed: November 20, 2012).