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Who Defines the Words We Use?

Sometimes the most profound insights can come from the simplest of questions, if we explore them deeply enough. Take, for example, the simple question; "Who should decide what a word means and by what criteria?" In Iceland the Icelandic Language Council tries to "officially" maintain the language of the land, which includes creating new words for the latest technologies, based on the compounding of existing Icelandic words. Apparently they do not take well to the importation of words which do not sound sufficiently Icelandic.

Most languages in the world are collaborative efforts of the people using them, with no government officials or other final authorities to determine exactly which uses are appropriate or how to define each word. The closest thing we have to language authorities are dictionaries and/or those who do the research to compile them. But the truth is that no matter how much defining goes on, it is never complete. Words, especially those that do not designate things we can easily point at, are defined in the context of conversation.

For example, what is a country? An online dictionary defines it in this way: "a political state or nation or its territory," and "the people of a state or district." But this is immediately insufficient when we start talking about what is good for a country. How can something be good for a territory? Good can only apply to living beings, and if something is good for a country, how many people in that country does it have to be good for? After all, just about any changes we make are good for some and bad for others. In general, we each have a different idea about what a country is when we converse, and the definition is a matter of negotiation to some extent.

This definition by negotiation is even more obvious when we start talking about "justice," "freedom," "love," and other concepts that are about as far from being identifiable "things" as we can get. Often, as individuals, we only have a "sense" about what these kinds of words mean, and the defining of them only takes place once we are engaged in a conversation.

Despite the variance in personal definitions of words, it is crucial that we share some common ground on the meanings of our words. Otherwise there is little to be gained from talking to one another. If, for example, we agree on what is a "crime" we can determine which actions to apply the label to, and who to put in jail. But what if my idea of crime is a moral concept and your definition is strictly a legal one? I might think some actions are criminal, but that whether they are against the law or not is not the defining criteria. Is it really a crime to speak one’s mind just because doing so has been outlawed in some places? Is it really not a crime to cheat people, just because one has discovered a legal way to do so? Now, if we can’t even agree on what a crime is, how can we reasonably discuss what should be done about it?

One way to resolve this (to some extent) is to make the defining criteria those that made the invention of the concept/word necessary in the first place. Let's look at an example in order to understand this...

Somewhere in our past, we humans saw trees, and noted the difference between them and bushes or vines, and so we created a word for each of these. While even here there can be debate about exactly what a tree is, by looking at what the word is pointing to we can’t very easily start thinking a lily pad in a pond is a tree. No, we have some basic agreement that they are woody, mostly single-trunk plants that live for multiple years.

Now, this identification of the purpose of the concept isn’t as easy with most words, but it isn’t impossible to make some progress toward common ground. And it is important, because our language and the logic with which we use it determine our actions, and our laws.

To return to our previous example, what if two people honestly want to communicate and make some decisions about criminality? They can start by looking together at the word "crime," and ask why it was invented in the first place. They might agree that it was meant to point to those actions which hurt people unjustly (and yes, "unjustly" might require yet another negotiation). They might further agree that only where the damage is significant enough should the word be used in a way that suggests legislating against an action. Any other uses of the word can be seen as metaphorical or replaced with the word "immoral," which indicates that an action is wrong but should not be subject to legal sanctions.

If people did agree to this, they might see that legally defined crimes which involve no victim are not really crimes at all. They might agree that at worst these should be civil infractions, the equivalent of running a stop sign or having a junk car in your yard in violation of a city ordinance. Since removing victimless actions from the definition of crime would mean decriminalizing many behaviors, including drug use and prostitution, we can see that how we determine what words mean really can change things.

Deciding what a word means is a collaborative effort, then, but it's not just a matter of majority vote. A word was created for a purpose, after all, so we should look to that purpose when defining it.

As a final thought, we should perhaps invent new words more frequently and consciously, particularly when existing ones are used for many concepts. Consider the word "love," which is used to label the concepts of emotional attachment, desire, and actual concern for another's wellbeing, among others. We might have clearer communication if we had a couple new words to describe the varieties of love.

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Who Defines Words?