Man-made definitions tell us a lot about ourselves and about the things they define but, really speaking, in the final reckoning about how little they actually do. Consider, for instance, the standard dictionary definition of an island: a mass of land entirely surrounded by water.
And of a lake: a large body of water completely surrounded by land. The meaning and description seems totally appropriate and watertight, so to speak, till we realise how grounded they are only in everyday experience and normal commonsense.
That, yes, Australia is an island albeit of continental proportions and the Caspian waters are a lake even though it’s usually referred to as a sea.
But what if the Earth’s land masses were distributed differently than they are today, with the northern hemisphere instead consisting totally of land and the southern totally water? Could we call the top part an island?
After all it would still be surrounded on all sides by water. Also, in that case, the lower part should classify as a lake because it too would be fully encircled by land.
In other words, an island and a lake can sometimes surround each other like a yin and yang symbol with each fully defining the other’s existence.
On the other hand, what if there was only a thin band of land running along the equator and going around the globe with gigantic ocean bodies on either side?
It would comprise a sort of super island since now it would be surrounded by two lakes at once. And finally, what about a planet like Venus as it was at one time envisaged by some science fiction writers in the fifties till science fact probes proved otherwise?
They used to think it was a world covered entirely by a vast mantle of ocean. Now that too, according to our august dictionaries would constitute a lake with the sides, in this case, at the bottom where an island of land resided surrounded only on top by water on all its upper sides.
It’s probably what the sixteenth century metaphysical poet John Donne had in mind when he wrote, “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is... part of the main”.
Nor, he might have easily added, is that which lies outside the boundaries of his skin an independent lake of a common definition because both remain in touch in so many ways vaster than we think as merely one.
Is it any wonder he came to realise that every man’s death diminished him because he was involved?
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