John Barclay, who for many years has written the syndicated column Exploring Words, writes to ask me how I would define one that he finds among the language's most mysterious.
It is time .
"If you were asked to write an acceptable definition of the word time without using the term itself," he says, "the odds are that you would find yourself in the same embarrassing position as a group of distinguished journalists who took up this challenge and failed the test.
"From the pulse beat of aboriginal drums to Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity and the magnitude of spatial time, this word is become one of the most awesome symbols in our language and a civilization's groping for new horizons in outer space. . . ."
Before looking it up, I have given some thought to a definition, and of course the first thing you want to say is, "It's the amount of time that. . . ."
And of course there you are. You've broken the rules and tried to define it by using the word itself.
Try defining any word. It isn't easy. You will begin to appreciate what an incredible compendium of clear, precise thinking and writing a dictionary is. And each new dictionary is built upon past dictionaries, so that new ways of defining words are in many cases only refinements of old ones. I wouldn't be surprised if many of the definitions in Merriam-Webster's unabridged dictionary today go back to old Noah Webster himself; and that his dictionary might have been based on Dr. Samuel Johnson's, which was the first attempt to define the English language systematically.
Before you get into anything as abstract as time , try defining some familiar everyday object, and see how hard that is.
Take chair , for example.
Most of us would say, "It's something you sit on," and let it go at that. But we know that's not satisfactory. We also sit on horses, and park benches, and bar stools, and seats of all kinds. We also sit on our rear ends.
So how do you define the word chair ?
Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary defines it this way: "A seat typically having four legs and a back for one person."
How long would it have taken you to get it down to that?
Of course the dictionary has to go on and define all the other meanings of chair, including the verbs. "To install in office; to preside as chairman of."
How about another familiar object: table ?
We want to say it is something you eat off of; but of course we know that won't do.
How about this: a horizontal surface, usually on four legs, used for dining, working, displaying.
Webster's, I find, is less elaborate, and more precise: "A piece of furniture consisting of a smooth flat slab fixed on legs."
Of course the word has dozens of other meanings; in the Oxford English Dictionary it fills a page of condensed type, and I notice that one definition, "to take one's meals habitually at a specified place," echoes a definition written by Dr. Johnson more than 200 years ago, "to board; to live at the table of another."
But those are the easy words. What about time ?
Keeping it as simple as possible, I would define it as "the space in which events take place."
But obviously that won't do. Time and space may be one entity in Einsteinian theory, but to most of us, they are separate. Things happen in space, and they happen in time. Just as things happen in different parts of space, they happen in different parts of time. Then time has parts? Locations? Well, in a linear sense, yes.
What if I say that time is the measurable period between events. That's closer; but it's cheating, since period is merely a shortened way of saying "period of time."
I give up. What does the dictionary say?
Webster's Collegiate defines time thus: "a. the measured or measurable period during which an action, process, or condition exists or continues; b. a continuum which lacks spatial dimensions and in which events succeed one another from past through present to future."
I like the second one better. Evidently time had no beginning and it has no end, so it is not truly measurable; and a period implies dimensions--a beginning and an end. Thus, a measurable period may be the Pleistocene age; that is, a time, but not time itself.
But the OED reduces time, in its first definition, to the measurable, finite state: "A limited stretch or space of continued existence, as the interval between two successive events or acts, or the period through which an action, state or condition continues."
That is the kind of time we deal with in life; the kind we set our clocks to measure; the kind we keep our appointments by, and reckon our age by, and in which we calculate how long ago it was that we graduated from high school.
It is strange that our best dictionaries do not do well at defining the emotional content of our words. Time is a much more fascinating and intimidating idea than the dictionary definitions suggest, and so is love.
Look up love in Webster's, you find merely this: "Strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties; attraction based on sexual desire."
Is that all there is to the emotion that has inspired the great poets of every language?
How would you define love?
Try it. It beats Trivial Pursuit.