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I'm not looking for a particular part of speech.

A corollary to this idea, and in some ways the opposite, is when something is defined by/as itself. A lot of times you will find this in bad dictionaries when the definition of a word refers to a word whose definition refers to the original word. I am wondering if there is a word to describe this phenomenon.

I also recognize that using 'whose' above is grammatically incorrect, as it refers to a person. What would I replace it with?

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I think those are actually two questions, none of which I understand properly. Could you please expand your questions, so that we get of better understanding of what you're looking for? –  F'x Feb 15 '11 at 9:45
    
I totally agree with _FX. your statements seem to be a incomplete in the meaning they wish to convey. Please elaborate. –  ikartik90 Feb 15 '11 at 10:37
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You mean for example "invisible" as contrasted to "transparent" or "unimportant" as contrasted to "trivial"? –  Kate Gregory Feb 15 '11 at 12:34
    
By "described by what it isn't" do mean as in "This question is not clear"? –  Ivo Rossi Feb 15 '11 at 13:08
    
The first question seems perfectly fine to me: I take it to refer to words like "foreign" and "inverterbrate", that mean "everything that isn't (something)". –  Colin Fine Feb 15 '11 at 13:14
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6 Answers

Interesting question! Are you looking for a word for “negative definition”?

In the theory of logic something can be defined with “double negation”.

In philosophy, Hegel helps with antithesis ‒ the opposite of thesis ‒ to explain ideas.

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I think what you are looking for is "negative definition". It is often used where it is much easier to contrast something with what it isn't than define exactly what it is. This gives an example (rather simplistic but...).

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In art, the terms "interstities," "negative space," and "figure-ground" are often used.

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The problem with negative definition is this can have quite a wide range of meanings, not just the one OP seems to be looking for.

I therefore suggest antonymic definition (as used in the second line of the third paragraph here), where I think even without the context, it's quite clear exactly what is meant.

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"Negative definition" is good. I prefer "Contrary definition", myself.

You might, at some point, hear "anti-definition" for this, but that's actually inaccurate.

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Even though I am not able to interpret your question perfectly, in case you mean the habit of using the wrong words at wrong places, then it is called Malapropism:

The blundering use of an absurdly inappropriate word or expression in place of a similar sounding one.

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