Words and Definitions (A Response to “I’m at a Loss for Words”)

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Recently, a friend of mine, Chris Woznicki, wrote about how our vocabulary is shrinking. I agree with his main idea, that due to our ever-shrinking vocabulary, we have become incapable of expressing ourselves properly. Perhaps one of my biggest beefs with our ever shrinking vocabulary is that many adjectives in our native language have been replaced with expletives. If you don’t know what that word means, you are likely part of the problem.

He uses the example of Domino’s Artisan Pizzas. They have taken the word “artisan,” and conveniently changed the word to simply mean “fancy;” this suits their purposes, of course. My friend interprets this as a symptom of America’s vocabulary deficit, and he may very well be right. As previously said, I agree with his big idea, but I think this is an example of how the meaning of words simply change over time. 

For example, take the word “faggot.” Previously, it referred to “a bundle of sticks or twigs, esp when bound together and used as fuel.” It also referred to “a bundle of anything.” Currently, it is used as a contemptuous term for male homosexuals. How did we go from using this word to reference fire wood to using it as an insult? I don’t know, but apparently there’s some kind of correlation between male homosexuals and fire wood. 

Let’s take a more benign example. The word “trunk” refers to many things. It can refer to the storage space in the rear of a car. It can refer to an elephant’s snout. It can refer to the main body of a tree. The word “trunk” did not always refer to these things, but was later applied to them.

Chris also proposes that words have objective definitions. Perhaps they do, but we have no way of knowing. Humans create languages, and human languages contain words. This implies that humans create words, words that at one point had no meaning until they were created, just like the language itself did not exist until it was created. Words do not have meaning until they are created, so to claim that they have objective meanings is a bit of a stretch. Since they don’t have objective meanings, words can technically be used in any way we please; no harm, no foul.

One might claim that words are like tools, however. Someone might say that like tools can’t be used in any way other than they were intended, words can only be used in one way. However, that simply is not true. For example, a pencil’s express purpose is to be used as a writing utensile. However, that’s not all it has been used for. It can be used as a weapon, as something that you can annoy others with, or as a makeshift drumstick. Even though a pencil is designed for a particular purpose, it can be used for other things. Similarly, even though words are meant to be used in a particular way, people inevitably use them in a way that was not originally intended. Would we call this bad? No, it simply “is”; it’s just there.

In fact, the flexibility of words is absolutely integral for philosophy. Quite often, philosophers are discussing or “inventing” concepts for which no term yet exists. The solution? Take a word that already exists and is close in meaning to the concept, and then apply it to the concept. Is this a bad thing? Once again, I don’t think so. At least there’s not anything obviously wrong with it.

I conclude not with agreement or disagreement, but with uncertainty. I think precision in communication is very important, but after considering this issue, I’m not sure if I can commit to such a position. The way we use words changes over time. This seems like an inevitability, nor is it always a negative occurrence. It would serve us well to broaden our vocabulary, but the fact that words are applied in a way that was not originally intended should not be seen as inherently bad, as long as they are not applied in a derogatory way.

To see the original article: http://cwoznicki.com/2013/07/06/im-at-a-loss-for-words-or-how-our-language-gets-watered-down