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The problem with words

April 12, 2012

Ah, yes, those pesky little things we find ourselves using all the time.

What is the problem with words? It really isn’t the words themselves so much as the definitions and meaning of those words. Determining what a word means is tricky for a number of reasons. First, the meaning of a word can change and morph over time and location. Take for instance the word “nice.” In the 13th and 14th centuries, to call someone nice was to refer to them as foolish, stupid, or simple. Today, calling someone nice is to say that they are kind, pleasant, or delightful. Second, a single word can have multiple meanings based on the context in which it is used. Third, people often ascribe different meanings to the same word based upon their background, experience, or upbringing.

This is not good or bad. It just is.

Why do we need to be aware of this? Because it has quite the bearing on how we approach discussions with others. We could avoid many problems, arguments, and frustrations if we would just set a foundation, by defining contentious words, before we engaged in a discussion or debate. Instead, far too often we end up going around in circles, talking past each other, getting in heated arguments, simply because each member of the conversation ascribes a different meaning to the word in question.

This is not to say that everyone has to agree on a certain meaning of a word. You can have a rational discussion about a topic even though each person has a different definition of a word in question, so long as each person in the conversation has an accurate understanding of everyone else’s view point/definition. This begins with us defining contentious words when we use them or asking the other person to define a word they use that may mean different things.

There have been a number of recent debates on the interwebs revolving around the words such as religion, politics, church. The problem has been that neither the initiators of the conversations nor the responders ever defined the word that the argument was focused around, thus no one ever set a place from which to work from. This is similar to walking up to a group of people in the middle of a conversation and trying to add something valuable to the discussion without hearing what has been said before or wanting to arrive at a destination without wanting to take the journey to get there.

This reminds me of a scene in the movie Inception. Cobb and Ariadne are sitting outside a cafe, talking:

Cobb: Let me ask you a question, you never really remember the beginning of a dream do you? You always wind up right in the middle of what’s going on.

Ariadne: I guess, yeah.

Cobb: So how did we end up here?

Ariadne: Well we just came from the a…

Cobb: Think about it Ariadne, how did you get here? Where are you right now?

Ariadne: We’re dreaming?

Cobb: You’re actually in the middle of the workshop right now, sleeping.

Starting from the middle ends up breeding immense and unnecessary confusion, most of which could be avoided.

My point is two fold. First, if you ever participate in a conversation, either as the initiator or responder, that includes a word that is either contentious or one that means many different things to many people, be sure to define what you mean by the word first. Otherwise, people will ascribe their own meaning to what you say and no rational discussion will be possible. Second, just because someone ascribes a different meaning to a word than you do, does not mean that they are wrong and that you are right, it just means that they are coming from a different place than you (and we need to be ok with that).

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 12, 2012 10:26 am

    Too true Jon. Frank Viola has a great chapter on this subject in his book Revise Us Again, too.

    • April 12, 2012 10:41 am

      Thanks man. That is good to know about Revive Us Again. It is on my reading list.

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