This morning as we were buzzing around town, I pulled up to a stop light right behind a really cool, old time convertible. I pointed it out to my girls, who are four with all the imagination, creativity and limited vocabulary that comes with that.
One of them looked at it, very impressed, and said, "You know, Mama? I think Daddy wants a no top car that makes it a lot of wind sometime."
The translation for this, naturally, is, "Hey Mama - I think Daddy wants a convertible sports car!"
Hence, the circular definition. A circular definition is one that is used to describe a word or phrase that you do not know. It may be visual or full of metaphors and similes, but it is not anything that would be found in Webster's.
For a wordsmith, it may be difficult to come up with a circular definition, so I would recommend that you pretend you are learning a new language and need to describe an item or idea to someone without knowing the right words. Imagine having only a limited grasp of the language, with a random assortment of entry level words, and try to get your message across. It's sort of like a reverse game of 20 questions.
"Is it a car?" - yes
"Is it windy?" - yes
"Does it have a ceiling?" - no
Aha, it must be a convertible!
writercize: Write a circular definition for any item or concept you want. Challenge your mind to work in reverse.
Click "read more" for a real life writercizer experience describing "liquid antibacterial soap" at a pharmacy in Italy, likely conjuring up some very odd images for the pharmacist.writercizer sample response:
Weeks before flying out of the country on my study abroad adventure, I had my belly button pierced. I was told that I would need to take good care of it and be sure to clean it often with liquid antibacterial soap. No problem.
When it came time to travel, it didn't make sense to me to bring along a large bottle of soap when surely I could buy it in Italy, practically the world capital of cosmetics and fashion, so I jumped on the plane without a drop of liquid soap.
On day two of my Italian adventure, I was feeling pretty confident. I'd only studied Italian for a total of six months to that point, but the first night I headed out to downtown without a dictionary and ended up wandering around town for a couple of hours with a French stranger I met at the train station, conversing in Italian the entire time. Seems crazy, I know, but I stuck to well-lit, crowded streets and I wasn't carrying any money on me, so I felt secure enough to trust a stranger to show me the city.
Armed with this confidence, I shunned the dictionary for my second day and headed to the pharmacy. I suppose I thought I would see a bottle that would be so obvious I wouldn't need the words. The simple thing would have been to look up each word in the dictionary before leaving my temporary digs at the United Nations (the furniture had not yet been delivered to my apartment, and my landlord had some random political connections with the U.N. - that's a whole other story) but it seemed too obvious.
I walked along the streets and into a square box of a store with white walls, glass shelves, and hundreds and hundreds of bottles and tubes. I was totally lost. So I called over to the pharmacist.
"Excuse me," I said in my best Italian. "I was wondering if you could help me find something."
"Absolutely, how can I help you?" she asked me, trying out the question in German and French before coming back to Italian. I was clearly a foreigner, but not so obviously an American. That or she didn't speak English. Probably both.
"Well, I don't know the word for what I'm looking for, but I think I can describe it to you."
Here was my circular definition of liquid antibacterial soap:
It's to wash your body, and it doesn't give you an infection. It's not hard like a rock, it's more soft like milk or water. But you don't drink it; you use it on your body. I don't know if it has a color, but the important thing is that it will not make you sick.
Somehow, she eventually got it and led me to the right bottle.
Written on the bottle?
"liquido antibatterico sapone"
It probably would have been easier just to say it in English since it was so similar in the end, but then what fun would have come out of the pride of describing something without any of the right words? It was like an exercise in creativity and engaging the preschool brain again, opening up linguistic channels to new sparks and excitement.