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Thread: Who should get to decide the usage of a word?

  1. #1

    Default Who should get to decide the usage of a word?

    The way I see it society spends an awful amount of time deciding what words mean, what they don't mean, should they be used shouldn't they be used etc etc. We can expand this to phrases as well. All too often we argue the semantics of a word or collection of words. For example...

    "Man/Male"

    "Woman/Female"

    The transgender debates often boil down to utterly circular arguments over the definition. We can add the term "gender" too.

    "Socialist"

    "Democracy"

    "Libertarian" (good god libertarian twitter is... interesting)

    "Art"

    "Religion"

    "Racist"

    "[Any racial slur and its usage]"

    At the end of the day who should decide what a word means? Should we determine this by common usage of the majority of society? Should words have a fixed meaning? Should words be said or not said based on the skin color, gender or orientation of a person? Words ultimately are simply a means of expression of an idea but we know word choice can help influence people.

    That said how should words be defined and used in the context of a conversation or debate? I see three options.

    1. Words should be used based on how the user has used them with that specific intent. If a person uses a word and it clashes with the formal terminology or someone's preferred way of using the word it should not matter. While the listener cannot always know what it is intended perfectly they should not take umbrage with the "misuse" of the word, instead adapt their understanding to the idea the speaker was trying convey.

    2. Words should be used based on how the listener uses them. Again here we have a scenario where imperfect knowledge of conversation partners means errors can occur but the usage of the word when known should be tailored to the preference of the one hearing the message. The speaker has an obligation to try to use the word the way the listener wants to hear it.

    3. Words should be used based on their strict meaning formally defined via some theoretically objective resource (say a dictionary - top term). In this case all parties agree to use the word in practice and can correct others when a word seems to be used in a different way.

    We can't be hypocritical about these things though, we should pick ONE way of going about it as an ideal and try to follow it. In that case which is best solution? And could you fit your conversation patterns to that on a consistent basis?

    Now honestly that's too much effort for a daily conversation but when debating/discussing issues it would make sense to pick one way of going about things. That way we could end the semantic debate spiral that happens over and over across thousands of debates every day.

  2. #2
    Quote Originally Posted by Lewkowski View Post
    We can't be hypocritical about these things though, we should pick ONE way of going about it as an ideal and try to follow it.
    Why? Why not let context determine which one is controlling in a specific instance. I guarantee that none of your options (or any others unmentioned) is the idea one in all or even possibly most cases. So why should we choose to use a suboptimal approach most of the time just because you favor oversimplicity?
    Last night as I lay in bed, looking up at the stars, I thought, “Where the hell is my ceiling?"

  3. #3
    Quote Originally Posted by LittleFuzzy View Post
    Why? Why not let context determine which one is controlling in a specific instance. I guarantee that none of your options (or any others unmentioned) is the idea one in all or even possibly most cases. So why should we choose to use a suboptimal approach most of the time just because you favor oversimplicity?
    Simple as black and white? White people not being white and black people not being black.
    .

  4. #4
    Quote Originally Posted by LittleFuzzy View Post
    Why? Why not let context determine which one is controlling in a specific instance. I guarantee that none of your options (or any others unmentioned) is the idea one in all or even possibly most cases. So why should we choose to use a suboptimal approach most of the time just because you favor oversimplicity?
    It allows for hypocrisy. "I'm going to use the word the way I choose to define it when I'm listening to a word AND when I'm speaking the word. Everyone most conform to my definitions even if they contradict." Just dooms you to getting into pointless debates about what word means or doesn't mean.

  5. #5
    Lewk, I'll bite. I think a lot of debates revolve around semantics - not that they are unimportant, but that they require a common set of agreed terms to appropriately discuss the underlying issue. But the issue is that semantics are not like facts that we can actually always come to an agreement about. These are often complex value judgments that are contextual. Sometimes the debate isn't about an issue at all, the debate is about an idea that we are assigning to a word. Trying to make some sort of blanket rule about how words should be used misses the point, it just shifts the debate elsewhere.

    One of the best gifts humans have is language, and the ability to put words to extremely complex, abstract concepts. The challenge, of course, is figuring out how to communicate these abstractions to our fellow humans and come to some sort of agreement on how our society should work. That's why we have debates. Language is not mathematics or dictionaries or even completely subjective. It's a living entity that we create and modify every day based on complex subtext and cultural interplay. Let's try not to be too prescriptive in its application.
    "When I meet God, I am going to ask him two questions: Why relativity? And why turbulence? I really believe he will have an answer for the first." - Werner Heisenberg (maybe)

  6. #6
    Quote Originally Posted by wiggin View Post
    Lewk, I'll bite. I think a lot of debates revolve around semantics - not that they are unimportant, but that they require a common set of agreed terms to appropriately discuss the underlying issue. But the issue is that semantics are not like facts that we can actually always come to an agreement about. These are often complex value judgments that are contextual. Sometimes the debate isn't about an issue at all, the debate is about an idea that we are assigning to a word. Trying to make some sort of blanket rule about how words should be used misses the point, it just shifts the debate elsewhere.

    One of the best gifts humans have is language, and the ability to put words to extremely complex, abstract concepts. The challenge, of course, is figuring out how to communicate these abstractions to our fellow humans and come to some sort of agreement on how our society should work. That's why we have debates. Language is not mathematics or dictionaries or even completely subjective. It's a living entity that we create and modify every day based on complex subtext and cultural interplay. Let's try not to be too prescriptive in its application.
    Superb post.
    Quote Originally Posted by Steely Glint View Post
    It's actually the original French billion, which is bi-million, which is a million to the power of 2. We adopted the word, and then they changed it, presumably as revenge for Crecy and Agincourt, and then the treasonous Americans adopted the new French usage and spread it all over the world. And now we have to use it.

    And that's Why I'm Voting Leave.

  7. #7
    Quote Originally Posted by wiggin View Post
    Lewk, I'll bite. I think a lot of debates revolve around semantics - not that they are unimportant, but that they require a common set of agreed terms to appropriately discuss the underlying issue. But the issue is that semantics are not like facts that we can actually always come to an agreement about. These are often complex value judgments that are contextual. Sometimes the debate isn't about an issue at all, the debate is about an idea that we are assigning to a word. Trying to make some sort of blanket rule about how words should be used misses the point, it just shifts the debate elsewhere.

    One of the best gifts humans have is language, and the ability to put words to extremely complex, abstract concepts. The challenge, of course, is figuring out how to communicate these abstractions to our fellow humans and come to some sort of agreement on how our society should work. That's why we have debates. Language is not mathematics or dictionaries or even completely subjective. It's a living entity that we create and modify every day based on complex subtext and cultural interplay. Let's try not to be too prescriptive in its application.
    Fair enough, however I'd ask you two questions.

    1. Do you think discussions that devolve into arguing about the definitions of words are productive and/or do they occur too frequently?

    2. If you answered yes to the above question - how would you solve the problem?

  8. #8
    Quote Originally Posted by Lewkowski View Post
    Fair enough, however I'd ask you two questions.

    1. Do you think discussions that devolve into arguing about the definitions of words are productive and/or do they occur too frequently?

    2. If you answered yes to the above question - how would you solve the problem?
    I think that discussions that boil down to people just using the same word differently are obviously pointless if the word isn't the real question. I.e. debating 'is socialism bad' is pointless if both people can't agree on a definition of socialism. You end up with all sorts of 'no true Scotsman' type of arguments and the sooner everyone agrees on what they're arguing about, the better. But debates where the definition of the term is central to the very topic being discussed - 'is the EU a democracy?' - are fantastic ways to explore how we define these complex and abstract concepts - and often, it allows us to realize that we actually agree on a great deal but have different perspectives on the same fundamental reality.
    "When I meet God, I am going to ask him two questions: Why relativity? And why turbulence? I really believe he will have an answer for the first." - Werner Heisenberg (maybe)

  9. #9
    Another good post from wiggin

    Unfortunately, exploring and debating "complex and abstract" concepts aren't the norm. We get so hung up on words (and definitions of terms) that we can't even agree on what "fundamental reality" means.

  10. #10
    wiggin was polite in his response to Lewk's question. Good on wiggin, he rose to the occasion. Now I'm gonna be the nasty bitch:

    We don't need to debate what "trolling" means to know that Lewk is a troll. He could/should have been banned a long time ago, but we like to think Freee speech is good and censorship is bad. He rarely answers questions directly (trolls never do) but that's partly what makes him 'valued' in forums like this -- he spawns arguments and debates. He's good at manipulating and exploiting concepts and perceptions, and we just can't resist the temptation to inform or correct him, even tho it feels futile.

    Lewk, you're the poster child for what's wrong in America. I've been waiting years to expose our underbellied flaws, so keep on posting!
    Last edited by GGT; 03-28-2020 at 05:32 AM.

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