General Question

nikipedia's avatar

How do you decide what a word means?

Asked by nikipedia (27922points) June 13th, 2008

I find a lot of debates often can be reduced to semantic disagreements, so it’s crucial to establish a firm definition for the terms you’re using.

Do you go by what the dictionary says, no matter what? Does it matter which dictionary? I think this could be problematic, since dictionaries can be sort of lousy at capturing connotation and nuance.

What if the dictionary had a definition that was outdated, and a more common colloquial meaning had emerged? Could you use the most popular meaning per Google? Is popularity of use sufficient to confer meaning? Would you poll experts on language, or experts in the field from which the word was derived? Or something else more obvious that I’m completely missing?

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15 Answers

Vincentt's avatar

If I want to use a word for which doubt exists, I just use a description instead of the word :)

whatthefluther's avatar

My suggestion is to avoid words with multiple meanings unless the definition is made extremely clear by the context in which it is used.

soundedfury's avatar

I love how you guys are avoiding answering the question.

Within debate, I use the history of a word to determine meaning, which includes modern usage but does not rely solely on it. The OED is great at tracing the use of words over time, which makes it a handy resource.

Within normal conversation, though, I assume the modern connotation as the definition.

gailcalled's avatar

Give us an example. I rarely have trouble either understanding or being understood – using standard English.

wildflower's avatar

I generally assign it the meaning I’ve been taught or used to it having – occasionally, when in doubt, I will look the word up. Especially if the context seems to suggest the word is being used for something other than what I’m used to.

I’m sure there’s far more sophisticated examples, but one that comes to mind is: “pissed”
To me, and those around me where I am, it means drunk. To those of you on the other side of the pond, it probably means upset.
Another is “mad”. To me, that most commonly means crazy (usually funny), but on the other coast, it means angry.

….come to think of it, Americans have a lot of words for angry, upset, etc.

gailcalled's avatar

Now, several words that I cannot define are “suck”, “cool”, “awesome” and “amazing.” So I don’t ever use them.

whatthefluther's avatar

@soundedfury: how about the word “bad”? Although one definition is slang , it is unfortunately all too frequently used in that manner. Context may help, but not always.

soundedfury's avatar

@whatthefluther – I don’t think @nikipedia is asking about miscommunication based on pop cultural use. She’s asking how to determine definition for a discussion that is focusing on subtlety and nuance.

Maybe a better example is a discussion of art and science. You’d have to come to a common ground on the definition of art in order to start the conversation, but how art is defined is usually personal and subjective.

In that kind of debate, I think that looking at the whole history of the word is valuable because, even if you can’t find a perfect definition, you can see the struggle for definition throughout time. You’ll get a clear idea of what it definitely is, what it definitely isn’t and what stuff is still grey.

whatthefluther's avatar

@soundedfury: good example with the word “art”. I fancy myself an art collector, but many a visitor, to my home, disagrees.

nikipedia's avatar

I considered putting some examples in the initial question but was worried the conversation would digress into discussions of those words. I think this problem applies to most abstract and/or relative concepts: justice, ignorance, class, intelligence, and ironically, the meaning of the word “meaningful”. (This is how I arrived at this question—a friend described a particular experience as “meaningful”; I saw no meaning in it whatsoever, but what does meaning mean, anyway?)

And art is an excellent example as well, although you will have to forgive me for opting not to “Great Answer” you.

@gailcalled: I guess I’m less concerned with communicating information and more concerned with settling a debate. We all more or less understand what abstract ideas mean, but what I’m really trying to figure out is….how to be right about everything all the time. :)

marinelife's avatar

@soundedfury Love the OED! I could spend hours just grazing in there. (Note the misuse of the word grazing to depict a visual metaphor.)

I think all of the possibilities you put out in framing the question, nikipedia, are relevant in some circumstances. If someone wants to debate a “concept,” then the dictionary is not really the proper resource, but neither is popular opinion (in my humble opinion). In that instance, I would attempt at the outset to agree on a “definition” for the purposes of the discussion, but with those terms you listed, I am not sure there is one single answer and thoughtful people will still be able to disagree within whatever the constraints of the “given” definition you decide on.

As to regular everyday meanings of words, I do go by a dictionary or use several.

I can’t think of any case except new slang or cant that I might look at popular usage as authoritative.

toomuchcoffee911's avatar

It’s like in the book Frindle!

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

What do you mean by the meaning of this? No no just teasing… I love the question almost as much as I love language. Defining our terms is the key to eradicating misconception. Vanquish misconception and take another step in the direction of Nirvana.

YARNLADY's avatar

This is a very profound question. Most people doen’t even bother to think about what a word means. Sometimes, when I want to get to a more precise meaning, I look it up in the Thesaurus, to see if the synonyms would be better, or to find better choices.

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