Definitions

October 10, 2021 Comments Off on Definitions

“Language is a labyrinth of paths. You approach from one side and know your way about; you approach the same place from another side and no longer know your way about.” [1]

Definitions are hard. No matter how much precision we strive for, their essence seems to elude us. Many are no more than lists of features or properties, often subject to change, that attempt to isolate or identify, or narrowly circumscribe the meaning of a word. Definitions come in many shapes and sizes. Those we find in a dictionary, such as Merriam-Webster’s, address what is referred to as “general language.” This comprises the words of everyday speech, along with a large number of technical and scientific terms in common use. Unabridged dictionaries and those based on historical principles, like the Oxford English Dictionary, strive to incorporate all of the words of everyday speech along with those of an earlier provenance that have fallen into disuse. English, a language with a very large corpus of words, has (or had) approximately half-a-million words in active or literary use, including a large number from the sciences and technology. 

By and large, dictionaries, certainly general-language dictionaries, are descriptive rather than prescriptive. That is, they are based on an analysis of how language has been used over a historical range and how words have acquired their meaning. They do not tell us how we should use a word or how it is to be understood but how past usage reflects, guides, or determines its meaning. This is one of the reasons that dictionaries include multiple definitions of certain words (or senses) within an entry. Aside from homonyms or homophones, which are given separate entries, these senses identify the different ways a word has been used and its general acceptance.

Unsurprisingly, there are many different kinds of definitons. Richard Robinson in his book on the subject, lists more than a dozen different forms [2]. Some of these are, strictly speaking, methods of defining, but the others are valid forms of definition. The most relevant and those generally found in practice are lexical definition, stipulative definition, and ostensive definition. 

The most common form of definition, the one we are familiar with from dictionaries, is the lexical definition. Here, the head word is broken down into its various senses and each of these is defined separately. Some words have only one sense (and one definition), others have several. We are generally familiar with most but not necessarily all of these senses from everyday speech.

Large, contemporary dictionaries are primarily based on historical principles and are descriptive rather than prescriptive. That is, they provide a record of historical usage since a word’s inception and a defnition based on actual usage. They describe how words have been used by other speakers over time and try to arrive at a kind of consensus report based upon such actual use as evidenced in speech or in print. In that sense they are only nominally normative, for they report on how words have been used rather than how we ought to use them. In English, the Oxford English Dictionary is perhaps the best known of such dictionaries.

Stipulative definition, on the other hand, is not based on how words are or have been used but on what we intend them to mean. Such a definition defines a word narrowly within the context of the text at hand. Both parties agree to agree on the meaning of a term, and its validity is limited. Such definitions are commonly found in contracts and legal documents, where the scope of reference is the universe covered by the instrument in which they are defined.

Of the definitions given below, the only true lexical definition is the one taken from Merrian-Webster’s Third International Dictionary, Unabridged. The others are what might be described as ad-hoc or subjective definitions, being based not on consensus or the accumulated weight of multiple instances of use, but on a personal assessment by the author of how or what the word means. As such they are of limited utility in terms of what might be referred to as a “canonical definition” of tango. However, taken together they provide a picture of what tango has been and how it should be understood. In that sense, they are attempts at what is known as “real definition,” which is not a true definition—which interprets the meaning of a sign by means of other signs—but an attempt to analyze a thing by means of another thing or the properties of that thing. It is fundamentally an attempt to grasp the essence or essential meaning of that thing. Such real definitions assume that we already know the meaning of the word but wish to understand how the reality underlying the word is to be understood in everyday life. When Plato, for example, attempts to define the meaning of “eros,” or “truth,” or the “good,” he is not asking his interlocutors for a definition of the word itself, for it is assumed they know what it means. Rather, he is asking them to contemplate the reality of how such things are to be apprehended in everyday life. 

As such, many of the definitions below are asking us to consider what we really believe to be the essence of tango and how we experience it in our everyday life, this “ballroom dance originating in Buenos Aires.” 


“A ballroom dance of Spanish-American origin in 4/4 time characterized by posturing, frequent pointing positions, and a great variety of steps.” – Webster’s Third International Dictionary, Unabridged.

“The serpent of the brothel.” Leopoldo Lugones in El payador, 1916 (quoted in Horacio Salas, El Tango).

“The tango is a jeremiad of the effeminate, the belated awakening of a woman unaware of her femininity. It’s the music of degenerates who reject proletarian clothing, whose greasy haired women abandon the factories for the bordellos…The tango is insane. The sensuality it displays is one of inhibition, timidity, and fear. The music of other nations is frankly sensual, ingeniously sexual. In the tango, sensuality is affected, artificially created.” Leónidas Barletto (quoted in Salas, El Tango).

“[The tango] is a sensual, vulgar music of the slums mixed with insolence and baseness, with stiffness and voluptuousness, with secular sadness and the exaggerated joy of the whorehouse, a music that is spoken in a language of slang and passion, and that brings to mind scenes of criminality in squalid environments populated by criminal silhouettes.” Manuel Gálvez in Historia de arrabal, 1923 (quoted in Salas, El Tango).

“The tango creates a murky, unreal past / that somehow becomes true, / an impossible memory of having died / fighting, on a suburban street corner.” – Borges

“A dense lament that quickly turned into violently carnal words, in proclamations of imprecise desires.” – Horacio Vázquez Rial

“…a prolonged whine, where all is desperation, deceit, betrayal.” – Silvina Bullrich (Calles de Buenos Aires)

“Hybrid dance of a hybrid people.” – Ernesto Sabato

“A sad thought that is danced.” – Enrique Santos Discépelo

“A tango is the intimacy that is hidden and the naked cry that is revealed.” Enrique Santos Discépolos (quoted in Salas, El Tango)

“Tango is a tree that always gives fruit because it is planted in the fertile soil of the soul of the people.” Osvaldo Pugliese

“Tango is what happens between steps.” – Carlos Gavito

“In my opinion, tango is love.” – Juan Lencina

“Passion.” – Juan Topalian

“The tango essence is embrace and enjoying the music.” – Dany “El Flaco” Garcia. 

“The tango became an expression of a fundamental human need: The hunger of the soul for contact with another soul.” – Christine Denniston, The Meaning of Tango: The Story of the Argentine Dance.


  1. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. by G. E. M. Anscombe (Blackwell, 2002).
  2. 2. Richard Robinson, Definition (Oxford University Press, 1965).

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