The Deference of Meaning
This is some tenant of post-constructuralist or de-constructuralist literary criticism, I can't remember which. College was long ago, and I never got far enough in classics to get into criticism. It's possbile the postmodernists never tackled Classics anyway.
The deference of Meaning was explained to me like this: You look up a word in a dictionary, and you find a definition, which is made up of other words. If you don't know a word in the definition, then you have to look up a second definition, made up of still more words. If you don't know a word in the second definition, you have to look up a third. This could - theoretically - go on forever. This little mind-game is an attempt by postmodernists (who in this light come across as little more than linguistic nihilists) to prove that language is meaningless, or, at best, means nothing but itself.
Possession repeatedly mentions an eighteenth-century scholar named Giambattista Vico. He did a lot and has never gotten much credit. He studied law, linguistics, history, and what we today would call social sciences. He was one of the first scholars to look at the surviving texts from antiquity citically enough to realise things like the "history" recounted in the poems attributed to Homer describe a mythological past, which may or may not have actually happened. He was also one of the first to doubt that one man alone wrote all that stuff.
There is a nice part of Possession where the main character, an English lit Ph.d. trained in all the post-this-and-that criticism, is reading a nineteenth-century poem, and "He heard Vico saying that the first men were poets and the first words were names that were also things" and " . . . the words that named things, [are] the language of poetry." (Byatt, Possession, Chp. 26, New York: Random House, 1990)
Sends those postmodernists packing, doesn't it?
* * * * * * *
I realised I knew an example of the "first words were names that were also things" business. In Greek mythology, the goddess Mnemosyne is the mother of the Muses. Mnemosyne is the goddess of memory; therefore, Memory is the Mother of the Arts.