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What is a Gist? - Definition & Overview

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  • 0:02 What Is a Gist?
  • 1:01 The Gist of a Gist
  • 4:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Angela Gentry
The ability to pinpoint a gist, or the central meaning of something, is a crucial skill in our communicative abilities. Learn more through a full definition and a lesson with examples. You can then examine your knowledge with a quiz.

What Is a Gist?

Imagine you've just gone to see the latest holiday blockbuster hit at your local movie theater, and a friend asks you what the movie was about. Most likely, you communicated the central idea of the film to your friend in a couple of minutes, or perhaps even in a single sentence. What you've done is communicate a gist.

The gist of a book, film, speech, article, and so on, is simply the essential meaning of it. You've grabbed onto the central kernel of its truth. Although most of us probably complete this thinking process without analyzing it, the skill actually takes quite a bit of critical thought, analysis, and summary ability.

Summary, an accounting of the main points of something, is similar in meaning to a gist, except that 'gist' has the nuance of the core meaning or the heart of an idea, whereas summary has the nuance of including all the bullet points. Summary would be recounting the plot points of a novel, yet pinpointing the gist would be capturing the spirit or the theme of a novel.

The Gist of a Gist

After watching a movie or reading a good novel, we may have a sense of the gist, but especially if it's for entertainment purposes, we may not articulate it. If given the opportunity, such as a friend asking us about a movie or an instructor requiring a paper on a piece of literature, we can use our analytical and organizational abilities well to capture the essential meaning of the subject at hand.

Let's take Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous speech, 'I Have a Dream,' as an example. One of the most powerful and poignant pieces of writing in American history, this speech is complex, beautifully crafted, and textured with layers of meaning. Here's an excerpt from the transcript of it:

...But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.

We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force...

With the sheer beauty of the language, it would be easy for us to get lost in the trees, so to speak. Let's see if we can articulate what the gist is for this particular passage, and then for the speech in general. In this particular passage, Martin Luther King Jr. exhorts those at the public demonstration not to resort to violence, or even harbor bitterness or hatred in their hearts. It is a call for peace, yet it trumpets the need to stand for change.

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