Indefinitive

Don’t stop me if you’ve heard this. (As Leo Rosten said, old jokes are like old friends.):

A guy walks into a bank and hands the teller a note: “I have a gun. Act normal.” The teller writes on the note and hands it back. “Please define your terms.”

(Digression: If I could draw, I’d make a cartoon of a bank with a sign: “NO ONE ADMITTED WITHOUT A MASK.” And, waiting their turns, is a long line of masked bandits.)

Another comedian revised the classic bank robber joke: After being handed the note, the teller asks, “Does this say gub or gun?”

But the new version reduced the joke from an existential question of normalcy and meaning … to slapstick.

Wordworkers toil to define terms and find meaning in definition as a search for essence. John Simpson, former chief editor of the OED, titled his memoir The Word Detective: Searching for the Meaning of it All at the Oxford English Dictionary.

So it was painful to see the OED turn around and bite itself when I looked up the definition of definition. The first two senses were labeled “obsolete.” Then came this doozy, under the category of Logic:

“The action of defining, or stating exactly what a thing is, or what a word means.”

So, I looked up defining. And OED said: “The action of define; definition.”

In Jack Lynch’s introduction to Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary: Selections from the 1755 Work That Defined the English Language, Lynch dispelled the myth that Johnson’s was the first English dictionary. But it did become the standard for all later dictionaries.

In the preface, Johnson wrote: “That part of my work on which I expect malignity most frequently to fasten, is the Explanation; in which I cannot hope to satisfy those, who are perhaps not inclined to be pleased, since I have not always been able to satisfy myself.”

One of Johnson’s guidelines was a rule from Isaac Watts’ Logick or the Right Use of Reason: “Neither the thing defined nor a mere synonymous name should make any part of the definition, for this would be no explication of the nature of the thing.”

Such repetition is different from the poet Gertrude Stein’s, “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.” That was an attempt to experience the rose itself, not as a symbol.

How about “It is what it is”? William Safire described that as “a deliberate tautology (the Greek tauto means ‘the same’) designed to define itself by repetition of itself. … Often accompanied by a shrug, it is used to deflect inquiry with panache.”

What prompted this exploration of ways and meanings?

In another magazine, a mother wrote about her son coping with corona chaos. And she said that she learned a new definition of yeshivah bachur. In essence, it was a boy who, despite the disruption of all schedules and structure, kept true to his core Torah identity.

A young man told me he was disturbed by that article. He insisted, “That’s not the definition of yeshivah bachur!”

I told him, “Your problem isn’t with the definition of yeshivah bachur. It’s with the definition of definition.”

I told him about when news media recently reported that Merriam-Webster had “changed the definition of racism.” But all that “changed” was that M-W agreed to take the matter under study … and follow their regular procedure for adding new uses of a word.

Samuel Johnson defined lexicographer as “A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.” Lexicographers also busy themselves in adding new uses of old words, to keep dictionaries up to date.

OK, so what is the definition of a yeshivah bachur? Literally, it’s an unmarried male yeshivah student. But that doesn’t tell us much.

OED defined bochur (go know what you can find in a dictionary!): “Chiefly in Jewish usage. A boy or young man; spec. a student of Talmudic and rabbinical writings at a yeshiva.” Then it said to compare “yeshiva bochur: A student of Talmudic and rabbinical writings at a yeshiva.”

Frumspeak: The First Dictionary of Yeshivish, by Chaim Weiser, defined it:

bo-chur n., pl. bochrim 1. An unmarried male: bachelor. … 2. An unmarried yeshiva student: schoolboy.”

I like Leo Rosten’s definition:

Yeshiva bucher: From the Hebrew, yeshov: ‘to sit’; bachur: literally, ‘chosen.’”

Rosten gave three senses:

“1. A young man who is a student at a yeshiva.

  1. A scholarly, shy, unworldly type. (‘He is as gentle as a yeshiva bucher.’)
  2. (Used ironically) A naive, gullible type.”

Rosten added, “Study at a yeshiva was extremely demanding, beginning with early prayers and continuing all day, in rigorous cerebral discipline, until late at night. … [The yeshiva bucher’s] innocence, his asceticism, his gentleness became legendary.”

By illustration, Rosten told a story about some yeshivah bachurim drafted into the Czar’s army who became master marksmen. But on the battlefield, they ignored the order to fire. Their officer yelled, “Why don’t you shoot?!” One of the bachurim answered:

“But those are men coming toward us, sir. If we fire, someone will get hurt!”


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