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?

  • 6
    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
    Commented Feb 15, 2011 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
    Commented Feb 15, 2011 at 10:37
  • 1
    You mean for example "invisible" as contrasted to "transparent" or "unimportant" as contrasted to "trivial"? Commented Feb 15, 2011 at 12:34
  • 2
    I think the second idea you're talking about is called using a circular definition
    – Tragicomic
    Commented Feb 17, 2011 at 10:42
  • 1

7 Answers 7


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.


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...).


Theologically, the term used for definition through negation is apophatic.


(Of knowledge of God) Obtained through negation. The opposite of cataphatic.


Eastern Orthodox Christianity emphasizes apophatic theology - the Western equivalent is sometimes called ‘negative’ theology.

(Oxford Dictionaries Online)

  • I don't know why this is being downvoted -- apophatic and cataphatic are actually the most technically correct terms, in philosophy or otherwise.
    – cjcurrie
    Commented Nov 20, 2018 at 11:27

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


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.


Maybe you mean this sort of entry:

recursion n. See recursion.

  • even if indirect, i.e. via other entries.

This we would call a circular definition.
But something defined by its opposite? What could that mean?

And using whose in your sentence is perfectly okay to avoid a clumsy locution like "the definition of which".


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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