The People in Charge of the Dictionary Discuss the Definition of Insanity

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A: It’s often said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Unfortunately, our prestigious dictionary does not represent this common definition. As the people in charge, I propose we remedy this.

B: Yes, I’ve heard the adage.

A: And you agree with it?

B: Agree with what? That people often utter this adage? Or agree with the content of the adage?

A: The content.

B: I agree in spirit, but I do not agree with it, literally speaking.

A: Why not?

B: Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is often an example of insane behavior, but it’s not the definition of the word “insanity.” The adage is a misuse of the word “definition.”

A: Hmmm, that’s a strange response. Recent research on the master corpus by our team of linguists reveals that the adage in question is among the most frequently used sentences containing the word “insanity.” It’s a popular sentence these days, especially in the self-help blogs and nonfiction business literature. Surely, a dictionary of all books should respect that?

B: That common?

A: Self-help blogs and nonfiction business books constitute 93.4% of all written English, as of 2016.

B: God help us. Well, anyway, we could insert this adage into the definition of the word “insanity”, but it would be better placed in the example than in the definitional content. Like so:

Insanity, n. The state of being seriously mentally ill; madness:
the definition of insanity is doing the same over and over and expecting different results.

A: Yuck. Then it just looks like the definition of “insanity” and the example given after the definition contradict each other.

B: Perhaps to an idiot.

A: Plenty of idiots rely on dictionaries.

B: True.

A: And anyway, no, not only to an idiot. It’s not uncommon in writing to use the word “definition” without attaching quotation marks around the thing being defined. For example, “the definition of integrity is doing the right thing even when no one is watching,” is another popular one.

B: People who say stuff like that are just being lazy asses.

A: Plenty of lazy asses rely on dictionaries.

B: True. Okay, the straightforward thing to say here is that “The definition of X” is an idiom, where the word “definition” isn’t being used literally. People use this idiom to talk about prime examples of things, especially when they think they’re being clever.

A: That’s a strange idiom. With a normal idiom, like “he kicked the bucket,” non-native speakers get stumped. That doesn’t seem to apply here. Anyway, this phrase doesn’t show up on lists of known idioms.

B: Okay… maybe it’s a shorthand. When people write or say the definition of X, where X is any word, maybe we should treat it as having an implied quotation mark around X. That way, speakers who say this kind of thing aren’t committing some kind of super-common use-mention fallacy.

A: I doubt it. Suppose that after someone says “The definition of insanity is…,” you simply say to that person, “Woah. Hold on! Are you saying that the definition of the word quote insanity unquote is literally…,” what do you think they’ll say?

B: Hmm. They’ll probably say, “What? No. That’s not the dictionary definition of ‘Insanity’… but maybe it should be.”

A: Yeah, exactly. So, let me try a different angle. We agree that we’re, for the most part, descriptivists, right? We care primarily about how the English language is actually used, in the present, by the majority of speakers. That makes us champions of the people, arch enemies of linguistic imperialism, and all that jazz.

B: Sure…

A: Well, if many—perhaps millions—of people sincerely say that “the definition of insanity is blah blah blah,” then who are we to say that these people are misusing the word “definition”?

B: Well…

A: What this really shows is that the definition of “definition” is outdated. Whereas, we now say:

Definition, n. A statement of the exact meaning of a word, especially in a dictionary.

What we should do is give two senses:

Definition, n.

1. A statement of the exact meaning of a word, especially in a dictionary.

2. An important or illuminating example of the meaning of a word: The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

B: You’re proposing that because of this annoying adage—it’s probably a cliché at this point—we revise our definition of “definition”?

A: Yes. And if it is a cliché, that doesn’t weaken my case.

B: That’s a bit… insane.

A: Is it the definition of insanity?

B: Seriously, all of this rot about adages is making me rethink our love for the vulgate.

A: Hey, now. Don’t go all prescriptivist on me.

B: I wouldn’t dream of it.

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Alex Baia is writer and marketer living in Austin, TX.