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 ones 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 cant
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
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 cant 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
Now, this identification of the purpose of the concept isnt
as easy with most words, but it isnt 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
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.