"...it is a bad method, to start from words to define things..."
—Ferdinand de Saussure, as quoted by Ogden and Richards
Penny: The gostak distims the doshes.
Quentin: What's a gostak?
Penny: That's what distims the doshes.
Quentin: What's distimming?
Penny: It's what the gostak does to the doshes.
Quentin: Okay, but what are doshes?
Penny: They're what the gostak distims.
This set of definitions was popularized in the science fiction world by a Miles J. Breuer short story from 1930 called "The Gostak and the Doshes." My father told it to me years ago, as a joke or perhaps just a bit of general oddness. This week I decided to track down the origin of the phrase.
A Web search initially shed little light on the subject, though it did turn up a page that refers to "the Chef's special care in preparation of his doshes"—I'm tempted to write them and ask where they get fresh doshes this time of year, and how much their local gostak charges to do the distimming.
(Another Web page mentions a South Indian food called "doshes," but that may be another typo or an alternate transliteration of "dosas.")
But eventually perseverance furthered. It turns out the phrase is originally from a 1923 book called The Meaning of Meaning, by C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards, a seminal work in semiotics. I haven't obtained a copy of the book yet—though I did find the first chapter in a volume entitled Classics in Semantics (ed. Donald E. Hayden and E. P. Alworth)—but I gather the point of the sentence is that its grammatical structure implies certain relationships among the beings, actions, and things referred to, even with no knowledge of what the words refer to in real life. That is, because of the syntax, the hearer or reader knows that some actor performs some action on some object, even without knowing what any of the terms' referents are.
Along similar (though not quite the same) lines is Noam Chomsky's sentence "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously," intended to demonstrate that a sentence can be syntactically correct without meaning anything. (The phrase has attracted a lot of attention and discussion; one linguist even wrote a song called "Colorless Green Blues.") Two meaningless sentences, both syntactically correct; but one describes a set of relations among unknown referents, while the other sets up an apparently impossible set of relationships among known terms.
Anyway, speaking of green things and things that don't conform to expected definitions:
Rebecca: What's green, hangs on the wall, and whistles?
Samuel: I don't know—what is green, hangs on the wall, and whistles?
Rebecca: A herring.
Samuel: But ... a herring isn't green!
Rebecca: Nu, so you could paint it green.
Samuel: But a herring doesn't hang on the wall!
Rebecca: Nu, so you could hang it on the wall.
Samuel: But a herring doesn't whistle!Rebecca: Nu, so a herring doesn't whistle.
...I always thought that joke had something to do with red herrings, but I could never quite work out the connection. Or perhaps it was a colorless green herring?
(For those unfamiliar with Yiddish and wondering "what's nu?", "nu" is a term vaguely approximating "so?"—sort of the verbal equivalent of a shrug. Somehow I always found the last line of the joke as given above more amusing than the alternate form from a similar joke, "I just threw that in to make it harder.")