Defining Terms3 min read

It appears to me that whole conversations would break down if we could all define terms the same way between each other.

When you look at words that are commonly said, they mean different things to different people. This isn’t just something to do with a different emotional association. It is an entirely different definition.

An example of an emotional difference with a term lies in how we have dealt with the object it represents. For me, I used to have a very negative reaction to alcohol. I did not drink it and perceived it as having nothing good about it. I would become upset whenever anything related to alcohol was mentioned.

I am now someone who has learned the different values in alcohol.

The word literally means the same thing to me as it always has, but all of my thoughts surrounding it have changed.

This is one way where terms are different between people.

The old me would think of someone as less than human when they mentioned alcohol and I would want to hurt them in some way. I generally just disengaged because I knew it was not a reasonable reaction.

The current me thinks of a nice scotch or a well balanced IPA or sour ale and I am happy.

I think this becomes even more damaging to discourse when the thing that is being talked about isn’t a physical object. When you are talking about concepts that are hard to define even for an academic, there is a lot of danger of talking about two separate concepts and not being aware of it.

Freedom is a good example of a term that can be used in numerous different ways. You can be talking about freedom from something or you can be talking about freedom to do something. Even with those two different broad categories, people have wildly different conceptions.

Freedom to one person could mean that they can start a company, make a ton of money, and spend that money on whatever they want. Another person may see freedom as hang gliding. A third person might see freedom as having the ability to never have to think that jackbooted thugs will break down your door and take you captive because you said something wrong.

Freedom is a common word. It is a simple word. It is a concept we can all understand.

Even in this simple case, we need to be sure we are talking about the same thing. These conceptions are not so far away from each other that we can’t understand each other when using a different definition. These conceptions are far enough away though that if we are getting into nuance, we can lose a lot by not defining terms.

Imagine now something that is more controversial. Anything to do with politics will fit into this category.

The next time you say something that doesn’t get the response you expect, try to define the terms you are using. You might find that words have an emotional meaning that differs from yours. Even worse, you might find that the words have different definitions.

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