The Great Conversation:

By Gabriel Blanchard

To define terms is always hard, usually dull, often frivolous—and unavoidable.

All language involves definition, at least implicitly; or, to put the same thing another way, you can’t talk without some idea of what you’re saying. It is, accordingly, a perpetual frustration that exact definitions are so difficult to articulate and, in many cases, so contentious. In her excellent book on the creative process and Trinitarian theology, The Mind of the Maker, Dorothy Sayers half-jested, half-lamented:

The desperate attempts of scientists to reduce language to a kind of algebraic formula in which the same symbol has always the same meaning resemble the process of trying to force a large and obstreperous cat into a small basket. As fast as you tuck in the head, the tail comes out; when you have at length confined the hind legs, the forepaws come out and scratch; and when, after a painful struggle, you shut down the lid, the dismal wailings of the imprisoned animal suggest that some essential dignity in the creature has been violated and a wrong done to its nature.

The principles of definition are—but of course—deceitfully simple: explain what a word means, fully and specifically, without circularity and without overlapping with other words. One reason this is so challenging is that that meaning is probably what we coined the word to convey in the first place, so that trying to explain that meaning while also not using the word in question is a lot of work, the linguistic version of “the long way round.”

Another issue is that words normally carry two kinds of meaning: denotation and connotation. Denotation what we may call the “factual” side of a word’s meaning, while connotation is the atmosphere or association of the word. For instance, “nose” and “schnoz” both denote the same referent (the pointy-ish bit with two nostrils that sticks out of the face approximately in its middle), but “nose” has a neutral connotation, while “schnoz” implies a casual or joking context. Another and more common type of connotation does not so much indicate the context in which the word is likely to appear, but communicates shades of suggestion; “clever” and “cunning” meaning more or less the same thing, but “clever” has positive connotations, while “cunning” hints at deviousness or guile. The discipline of rhetoric, while it deals with far profounder topics of reasoning, also covers things like the subtleties of vocabulary choice, which largely means finding the words with the right connotations for one’s context and purpose.

There are two levels of knowing a subject. There is the student who knows what a noun or a gene or a molecule is; then there is the student who also knows how the definition was arrived at.

Neil Postman

This points to one of the aspects of language that can control definitions, what linguists technically call register. This indicates the kind of language used in a given social and conceptual context. For example, a religious or poetic register allows many archaic words (like thou or yore) and indirect constructions (like “from the rising of the sun to its setting”) which would sound unnatural or ridiculous in another register, and this also affects how we understand the words we find in it. We might know to interpret “comfort” as “strengthen” in an old-fashioned religious text, rather than as “make to feel better.” Misunderstandings and jokes can easily arise from a single word having two markedly different definitions between registers; puns are nothing else.

But it oversimplifies things a little to say that definition is just “saying what a word means.” For one thing, there are sophisticated debates not only about the meanings of words, but about the act of defining itself: are we simply explaining the meanings of words when we define? Or are we (or ought we to be) articulating the inherent essence of the word’s referent? Are our words primarily about other words, or primarily about things in themselves?

This is related to, though not the same thing as, the notorious conflict between “descriptivism” and “prescriptivism.” The latter school places great value upon correctness, however correctness may be defined, and tends to enforce rules, or even invent new ones (e.g., the rule not to split infinitives was brought into English style guides by Latinists, Latin being a language in which splitting infinitives is actually impossible). However, even if we pushed this to an extreme, we would be forced to admit that words change meaning over time—meat, for instance, is no longer a synonym for food in general, as it was in Middle English—and this is, and can only be, driven by actual usage. Prescriptivists, by contrast, follow usage in understanding words. Yet only to a point; even a dyed-in-the-wool prescriptivist will admit that people use wrong words or misunderstand them sometimes. Moreover, both schools can be tripped up by the difference between the meaning of a word (whether denotative or connotative) and the meaning of a speaker in using that word: two people who both “mean the same thing” by the word funny might argue over whether such-and-such a film or book is funny, not due to lexical confusion or dispute, but because their taste in humor differs.

Lastly, we may take note of what may be called the tactical definition. C. S. Lewis dryly observed in Studies in Words that, especially when a given term becomes fashionable and therefore coveted for use by rival schools of thought, parties to the rivalry will sometimes allow their covetise to overrule their scholarliness, and define words in increasingly unnatural ways for the mere purpose of denying their use to “the enemy.” Lewis’ own word of choice to illustrate this phenomenon is wit, which was a great vogue-word among the literary in the eighteenth century. As he puts it, writing about the poet John Dryden’s elaborately strategic definition of the term:

Dryden’s reference to “vulgar judges,” and perhaps the language of all these critics, might lead us to believe that a group of cultivated speakers were defending their own usage against a vulgarism … But it is no such thing. They themselves used wit in the sense they reprobate. … What Dryden probably believed, and would certainly have wished others to believe, about his use of the word is not true. “Out of school” he often talked like the “vulgar judges.”

Suggested reading:
Plato, Theætetus
Aristotle, Categories
St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiæ I.85
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, “Who’s on First?”
Walker Percy, Lost in the Cosmos


If you enjoyed this piece, check out some of our other material here at the Journal, like these author profiles of Michel de Montaigne and Willa Cather, these “Great Conversation” pieces on chance and beauty, or this series on classic literature in the history of Black American education.

Published on 10th March, 2022.

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