The Interpretive Definition: Meaning in Context

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For previous posts on teaching The Argonauts, click below:

“I now understand her point better”: Reflections on Empty Narratives of Research 

What Does Interpretation Look Like? A Play in Three Acts 

As we’ve been making our way through The Argonauts, my students and I have encountered words drawn from writers of philosophy, psychoanalysis, queer theory, political history, poetry, manifestos and more. When the students look up the unfamiliar terms that populate Nelson’s text, the online dictionaries only offer them so much assistance in illuminating whatever passage they are struggling with.

How, I ask them, can a definition drawn from a normative text like a dictionary be expected to make sense when it is plopped down into Nelson’s queer text? (The same question can be asked of any definition dropped into any text where the writer’s work is interpretive; in this instance, the normative responsibilities of the dictionary simply get thrown into high relief when the destination text is Nelson’s genre-bending memoir.)

So, as a corrective, I sent the students off to explore the digital Oxford English Dictionary. I wanted them to watch the word they were researching enter the English language, to track its appearance backwards in time and then forward into the present. I wanted to highlight that the meaning of a word alters over time. And then, once the students had done that work, I wanted them to return to Nelson’s text and write up an account on how Nelson was using the word or phrase they chose to explore. To help the students along, I posted my own response to the assignment on our WordPress site.
What I received in response has amazed me. This assignment paid dividends beyond my wildest imagination. I really recommend it!

Here’s the example I posted:

Before we met, I had spent a lifetime devoted to Wittgenstein's idea that the inexpressible is contained--inexpressibly!--in the expressed.

The OED defines the adjectival form of inexpressible to mean: "That cannot be expressed in words; unutterable, unspeakable, indescribable," which isn't terribly surprising. What's interesting is that they credit John Donne, metaphysical poet and Anglican priest, with first putting the word into print in a 1631 sermon delivered on Easter Sunday:

"Thou shalt feele the joy of his third birth in thy soul, most inexpressible this day."

How can Christ be born three times? First, in the miracle of Mary's virgin birth. Then, when he is resurrected after his crucifixion. And, a third time, when he is re-born in the soul of the Christian believer. When that happens, Donne preaches, the joy the believer feels will be "inexpressible."

So, the original context for the term is religious. When the term surfaces in Nelson's prose nearly 400 years later, it is not in relation to a devotion to Christ, but in an idea of Wittgenstein's that Nelson "had spent a lifetime devoted to." The term, in other words, has traveled from the realm of the divine to the secular realm of philosophy.

This observation remains true even after I discovered a yet earlier use of the term than the one recorded in the 2nd edition of the OED (published before the digitization of print made global searches of lexical history something anyone could do). It turns out that Donne used "inexpressible" in Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, his extended meditation on the meaning of death and sinfulness, composed in 1623 and published in 1624, after he recovered from an unknown illness that almost cost him his life. The context this time is Donne's XIX Expostulation, where he maintains that God is a "direct God, may I not say a literal God, a God that wouldst be understood literally and according to the plain sense of all" and, at the same time, a "metaphorical God too," one whose use of metaphors, allegories, and hyperbole is without equal. Addressing his God, Donne rejoices:

"O, what words but thine express the inexpressible texture and composition of thy word, in which, to one man, that argument that binds his faith to believe that to be the word of God, is the reverent simplicity of the word, and, to another, the majesty of the word."

Here, Donne, Wittgenstein, and Nelson converge: Donne's first use of the term "inexpressible" occurs in a discussion of how God's language, as recorded in the Bible, works its transformative magic; Nelson is not devoted to that God, but to Wittgenstein's idea about language's power to express the inexpressible. Donne and Wittgenstein are struck by the same thing. The difference is that Donne credits the Christian God with the power to make the Bible work as it does while Wittgenstein locates that power in the structure of language itself.


Right next door to "inexpressible," one finds the plural: "inexpressibles," a euphemism for "unmentionables" that arose in the late 1800s. Edward Gibbon, author of The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, used the euphemism in a letter to Lord Sheffield on November 11, 1793, in relation to his visit to a surgeon. "Have you never observed," Gibbons writes, "through my inexpressibles, a large prominency which, as it was not at all painful and very little troublesome, I had strangely neglected for many years?"

Gibbons went on to report on the surgical efforts to drain the large prominency of the water that was collected in it. These drainings were carried out every fourteen days, because the prominency refilled with water. Gibbons never recovered and died on January 16, 1794.

Here, the inexpressibles cover over the unmentionables, placing the discussion of sexual health out of bounds. So, inexpressible goes from the divine to the venal, flipping its meaning during its voyage from the sermon to the mundane.


In this way you can have your empty church with a dirt floor swept clean of dirt and your spectacular stained glass gleaming by the cathedral rafters, both. Because nothing you say can fuck up the space for God.

What is this space for God? I think it is the inexpressible. No matter how you choose to use language--to celebrate simplicity or complexity--there's no way to exercise complete control over how words say and mean. Put the profane ("fuck up") right next to the sacred ("God") and the inexpressible space remains.

About the Author
Richard E. Miller has been teaching writing for over 25 years. He has blogged extensively about digital technology, the end of privacy, and the future of higher education on his website He’s served on the executive committee of CCCC and of the ADE; he’s been on the editorial board of CCC, Studies in Writing and Rhetoric, and Pedagogy (ongoing). He’s an essayist, social media fanatic, sometimes poet, photographer, multimedia composer, graphic novelist (he writes about the misadventures of his alter-ego, Professor Pawn) and memoirist.