Aphorisms and Definitions

Belgian gnomologist Gerd de Ley has published The Ultimate Dictionary of Wit and Wisdom, a comprehensive collection of definitions by a panoply of personalities, including (to start with the As)…

Ambivalence: watching your mother-in-law drive over a cliff in your new Cadillac. —David Mamet

Avant-garde: French for off-Broadway garbage. —Dick Van Dyke

Avoidable: what a bullfighter tries to do. —Norm Gilbert

Gerd invited me to write a brief intro to the volume, which follows in full:


Dictionaries are, by definition, not definitive. We cannot really say with complete precision what something is. Words are too mercurial, and our own perceptions too partial, for that. Insights slip and slide; connotations come and go. We can never dip into the same meaning twice because words, and the thoughts they carry with them, are always flowing on. The ‘last word’ on any subject cannot be spoken because language itself withholds it. The best we can do are approaches, approximations. So, for me, the most accurate definition of ‘definition’ is by English novelist Samuel Butler, who wrote: “A definition is the enclosing of a wilderness of idea within a wall of words.” This definition comes close to definitiveness by recognizing its own inadequacy, by acknowledging that the most fertile ideas inevitably outgrow any attempts to confine them by defining them. To open Gerd de Ley’s monumental, magnificent dictionary is to enter a garden of definitional delights where, within the space of a few imperfect words, we encounter the wildest reaches of the human mind and heart.