In Defense of the Standard Definitions of Words

Some time ago, I wrote an article about language processing for humans in relation to programming languages. While accurate, I do find it obligatory to write a response to my own article.

As a frequent user of the English language, I appeal to a kind of standard that, to some extent, I expect everyone else to appeal. When we say, “That’s wrong”, what we really mean is, “That’s not according to the standard to which I prescribe.” This is a bit relative, of course. 1+1=2 if you abide by the Arabic system, but 1+1=10 if you follow binary. However, if you pick a standard and chose to abide by it, then the other answers truly are “wrong”. If I abide by the Arabic numeric system, then 1+1=2 and not 10. Anyone saying “it’s relative” as a dismissal of my argument would be ignoring the fact that I am prescribing to a particular standard, and they would, in fact, be incorrect. Within the system where 1+1=2, the answer is not dependent on each individual’s choosing; the answer is dependent on the standard.

Admittedly, it is difficult to maintain a standard. Things change over time. The standard to which I appeal isn’t shared by everyone – not by my peers or my predecessors. However, it is the opinion of my peers that matters because it is between us that ideas are supposed to be shared. If I want someone to understand me, then I must speak in their language.

Speaking in someone else’s language is difficult because we don’t exactly know where we have common ground. Fortunately, the differences between our words are not so drastic that we can’t share general ideas. To combat our differences, we must speak about shared experiences and try to refine our definitions of words such that, when we attempt to use them, we are communicating the same idea.

The purpose of language is to communicate an idea. Communication requires two: a sender and a receiver. For humans, someone is the speaker and the other is the listener. For humans and computers, generally, the human is the writer/programmer and the computers is the obedient machine. When communication is effective, both can cooperate in tandem and share ideas that both understand.

Hence, as an individual, I willingly subject myself to a standard for language because I want to communicate an idea. However, because my experiences are different than everyone else and my language has become much more refined because of my thoughts, I must explain myself in more common terms, which sometimes – unfortunately – loses some of the original idea.

Second, I don’t fully subject my language to the language of another because their language is often changing, whether by the influence of themselves or by society. I very much disapprove of societal changes in language. The reason for this is because there is technically no standard, so your ideas are often destroyed by however one wants to communicate with them. Consequently, using slang is off-limits. It opens the door for misinterpretation. Furthermore, culture tends to pollute its language. Words that were normal one day are redefined for the sake of convenience or agenda. Cuss words and controversial words often come to mind. What do you usually think of with the words “hoe” or “marriage”? If there is no standard, you end up fighting with people over things that should be commonly accepted.

There are reasons people change words. The primary reason is emotion. People want to either tie an emotional value to something else (such as tying the joy of marriage to perverse unions) or add an emotional (or taboo) value to a word that didn’t originally have it.

In any case, the meaning of words change in their culturally-accepted value over time, and for that reason, I find myself fighting for the definitions of words and saying, as I will, “you’re wrong” according to the standard to which I prescribe.

If I did not defend the definition of words (even the most trivial of them), then society would destroy the ideas that I’m trying to convey in my words and the words of others who use those words like I do. For that reason, I have all the more reason to argue for the preservation of what I perceive as the traditional meaning of words, even if the meaning I am defending is only “recent”.

Why defend a recent meaning? This is necessary because of my peers’ understanding of those words. We already have ideas associated with those words. It’s those ideas I want preserved. If tomorrow, everyone decided to start speaking Chinese, we might have a fresh plate to start with, but I would be encouraging us to go back to the American English I know and that I know my peers understand.

Time has a way of making us forget the meanings of words, especially if we don’t write down their meanings. I’m sure many people would like to think they follow the dictionary definition of their vocabulary, but the reality is, most of the time, the dictionary editors are trying to keep up with how people are using words. Then when people go to look up the word, they find it means something else. (As a humorous note, I read in an old dictionary the word “gigabyte” was to be read “jigabyt”, since “gi” often makes a “ji” sound as in “giraffe. As society eventually showed, nobody thought that or wanted it.)

Sometimes time can be a blessing – old words take on new, kinder meanings – but sometimes it is a curse. A number of old books are now difficult to read because changes in language have made the old meanings obsolete. While admittedly, the richness of those ideas can be refreshed by modern writing, it can only be done so at the cost of many hours of scholarly study. The trade-off is that the rest of us, who care nothing about those books or the old ideas, can speak in our own language without the need to constantly reference a dictionary and try to relate its ideas back to our experiences. Even if we were to preserve dictionary meanings throughout centuries, the very definitions themselves would gradually become obsolete because each person sees the world in their own unique way and relates it to their life in their own way.

The fact that we do relate words to our direct experiences makes it, in some ways, easier to communicate with those who share those experiences. The fact that we can learn other languages indicates the transcendence of ideas beyond the words that convey them; that is, an idea is not tied to its language but to the people who understand it and try to communicate it in their own language.

~ Conclusion ~

Prescribing to a standard is a good thing. It allows us to share ideas, and that’s the point of communication. Since society tends to pollute and change the meanings of words, it is important to preserve them so that ideas are preserved. What are those definitions? That differs to some degree between all of us, but the general notions are so similar that it’s hard to ignore the seemingly pervasive – if admittedly vague – “standard” of the American-English language.

I never quite addressed the fine-line issue of determining where to give leeway and where to prevent the changing of definitions. That’s a topic for another time. Admittedly, some words require more rigorous definitions than others. For example, the word “one” has a much more rigorous definition than “a few”, but both have to do with quantity. Some abstractions can only be referred to by experiences. For example, “sky” is an experience that only scientists try to pinpoint as some distance from the surface of the earth. The rest of us don’t care unless we don’t see the sky. It would take a more thorough discussion of this topic to rationalize the argument of this topic. But as I said, that’s a topic for another time.

8 thoughts on “In Defense of the Standard Definitions of Words

  1. The Latin Mass was a nice standard, but it was too proprietary, which is very possibly why it was used. English is a nice standard, unless youre Irish or Scottish and English is being used to stamp out your culture.

    Similarly, Gaelic is a standard on Irish signage because otherwise it would finally be stamped out. All for mishandling and then careful preservation of standards, and a few other differences worked out; at least people can stop fighting about the border all the time. What sounds like a political message, actually a cautionary tale about being on the wrong side of a standard– whether pushing one too hard, or letting one fall away. Though I think pedantry turns into defense too often. The people pushing standards (and made-up rules) most often are not the inventors of the language, and the inventors– who perhaps learned a lesson or two about being pushy– are more relaxed. Im with the inventors on how seriously to take the matter. It is still a standard, but like, it isnt always as serious about everythin. Cause yknow the language will be alright.

    1. And that’s understandable. As an inventor, I can also see the need for change and improvement, especially where language is lacking. Sometimes we simply don’t have words to express what we want, so we have to expand the standard to include them, but that may mean other words we have are affected in meaning and association. Japanese comes to mind as a language struggling with that, and they’ve had trouble just trying to convert all of the English words they soak up into Japanese because they didn’t make a Japanese equivalent. I heard a podcast where some guy was trying to explain “dry bar” vs “driver”, which are both ドライバー in Japanese. Language will never fit everything perfectly, and what do we do about all of the technology being invented? How many people know what “tablet” actually means? Well, nobody uses stone tablets anymore, so I guess it’s acceptable to allow such a meaning to fade to some degree, though… hehe… you can probably imagine the funny image a future kid gets if he’s told Moses came down Mt Sinai with two tablets … and then told they could only hold 10 paragraphs. XD

      1. lol! You could probably do something like it by taking pictures of hieroglyphics, such as owls, etc., and trying to convert them to vector graphics using strong/maximum smoothing values in Inkscape. It’d look weird but at least recognizable… uh.. for some of them at least.

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