How Do You Define a Word?

How do you define a word? I know it seems nice to think you can look at a dictionary, but it seems that dictionaries follow something: words themselves are a sort of zeitgeist. What a word means, then, is what we all agree they mean. After all, “zeitgeist” might be absolute nonsense to you and it meant nothing. At the same time you can look it up in a dictionary. That does somewhat contest my earlier point.

But if words were not a zeitgeist, Latin could not have diverged into both Italian and Spanish, because there would be some authority that would have kept each word meaning what it always meant. Even English has changed greatly: what are a “wicket” and a “cliket”? It’s a lock and a key, respectively. But it’s from Chaucerian English, 600 years ago. Even in modern times “cool” has moved from meaning ‘chilled’ to ‘fashionable’. ‘Wicked’ has changed almost entirely from describing ‘evil’ to also meaning ‘fashionable’.

So, there is a collective agreement to what words mean. I meet this when I discuss that I am an “atheist” and an “agnostic”, because I do not believe yet I concede that I do not know. There is, on occasion, a disagreement on my definitions and a dictionary is consulted. The older dictionaries do not agree with me, the new ones do. In conversation or debate the conceit is often reached that when I say “atheist” the definition I gave is the expression I mean; a perfect illustration of a word meaning what we agree them to mean. Richard Dawkins also does this in his book The Blind Watchmaker where he argues that complex things like organisms can be grouped with complex things like computers under the term “biological”. Equally, Dawkins defines on his own terms the meaning of the word “complex” and “explain”. The book then goes on to use those terms with his definitions.

I raise this because I just argued with an English (BA) graduate about whether the term “an argument from science” is a meaningful term. The English graduate says it is not a meaningful term, and the term would be better expressed as “an argument based in science” or “a scientific argument”, and that the term “an argument from science” sounds like I’ve borrowed the argument. But of course I have, I didn’t do the science myself.

I argue that “an argument based in science” ends up using one word more without adding meaning, and “a scientific argument” paints pictures of graphs and confidence intervals and statistics. English, as a subject, is too focussed on dictionaries prescribing correct use of English instead of describing: a picture in time of what words meant at that moment.

Also, is understanding more important than ‘correct use’? Firstly, as a reader, what do you understand an “argument from science” to be? If you understand it to be an ‘argument based in scientific understanding’ then you understand what I mean. If I got my message across, does it even matter if I used the phrase ‘incorrectly’?

Technically a statement that attempts to discuss fact (instead of opinion) that is wrong is called a “false claim”. But for a long time I used the term “false fact”. Everyone understood what that meant, but it was wrong. In hindsight it sounds like smug sarcasm if everyone else agrees “false claim” is the correct term (maybe that’s what I was going for). It was after arguing with my brother, where he researched it and found the term “false claim” to describe what I meant, that I conceded and changed how I described “false claims”. But it wasn’t until I met a grammar-Nazi that cared about technical use that my lack of technical use even mattered.

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