Does a Word Mean What Its Definition Says?

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  1. GA Anderson profile image90
    GA Andersonposted 3 years ago

    Of course, a word means, (or is supposed to), mean what its definition says it means.

    And of course, it is technically correct to deny alternate meanings are correct or acceptable.

    But ... I think it is more real-life true that a word, in common usage, is more correctly defined by what a broad spectrum of people using it thinks it means.

    Responding to an ongoing exchange about what  "Liberal" or "Conservative" really means. I had a thought. *I know ... I should just let it go.

    Here's the thought: My perception is that when being used in a topical discussion; the commonly understood, most commonly intended message is more important to the discussion than a true original definition

    The obvious counter would be asking how we can have effective communication if sender and receiver apply different messages to the words.

    I counter that in the context of the mentioned examples and in most general discussions it is probably a safe assumption that the "technically correct" receiver will also understand the intended message of the sender, if only due to the attempt to correct the message. And although I think a Liberal "receiver" is much more likely than a Conservative "receiver," this shoe fits both feet.

    So which is more important for effective base communication?


    1. wilderness profile image94
      wildernessposted 3 years agoin reply to this

      One should never make up new meanings (or words) and then use them without explaining what they have done - what their private definition is.  But on the other hand, using the common, modern definition rather than one far outdated is quite acceptable and often preferable.  The difference, of course, is that a private definition is not in common use and no one could be expected to understand what is meant; communication fails.

      It might be noted, however, that there are times when a common, modern definition is inappropriate.  In legal matters, for instance, or scientific dissertations where a definition is set in stone, unchangeable without agreement from the community (is Pluto a "planet"?).

      1. GA Anderson profile image90
        GA Andersonposted 3 years agoin reply to this

        Your points are valid, and also the reason I qualified the context; "... the commonly understood, most commonly intended message* ..." (intended word definition)


        1. wilderness profile image94
          wildernessposted 3 years agoin reply to this

          I caught that, and I agree that that is usually the most useful definition.  Of course, even those "commonly understood" definitions vary even within the country.  What, for instance, is the common definition of a carbonated beverage in an aluminum can, of which Pepsi Cola is an example?  Is it a a "coke"?  A "soda"?  A "pop"?  All fit that commonly understood definition...depending on where in the country you are.

  2. Nathanville profile image92
    Nathanvilleposted 3 years ago

    #1.    English is a complex ‘living’ language that continues to evolve; and there is more than just one version of the English Language e.g. American English and British English; and (particularly in the UK) dozens of different English dialects e.g. Bristolian, Scots, Estuary English etc.

    #2.    Many words in Standard English Dictionaries, such as the Cambridge Dictionary and the Oxford Dictionary, have multiple meanings, and meanings do change over time e.g. gay has a totally different meaning now than it did in the Victorian era.

    One of the main difficulties I have in corresponding with Americans is the multitude of differences between American English and British English e.g. hood and trunk on an American car is bonnet and boot on a British car.  I often have to look up the meaning of words on HP forums because they are American words that is either not commonly used in the British English language, or they don’t exist in British English, or have a different meaning in British English.

    The classic is:-

    •    What Americans call ‘chips’ the British call ‘crisps’, and
    •    What the British call ‘chips’ the Americans call ‘Fries’.

    Other words for vegetables which often cause confusion when communicating with Americans includes:-

    British (on left) vs American (on right) names for Vegetables

    •    Courgette = Zucchini
    •    Aubergine = Eggplant
    •    Rocket = Arugula
    •    Swede = Rutabaga
    •    Spring Onion = Scallion
    •    Beetroot = Beets

    1. GA Anderson profile image90
      GA Andersonposted 3 years agoin reply to this

      Those are all valid points Nathanville, but they are not within the context of the OP.

      A specific example would be what, I think, is commonly understood to be the meaning of Conservative in today's topical discussions, and what the text book definition of Conservative is.

      I frequently see a defense and explanation of "Conservative," that is actually more closely associated with the "textbook" definition of 'Classical Liberal'.

      I think anyone hearing that "Conservative" definition would understand what the person defining it means, just as well as they would know it is an incorrect definition. Still, even without the definition correction, I think both parties understand the intended message.

      So it is not exactly a changing of the definition, or even a bastardization of the meaning - it is an alternate meaning that even though incorrect, still serves for the communication.

      A more illustrative example, ( Watch out, I am naming names here); Onusonus has a definite idea what a Conservative is, and he explained it.

      By definition his idea is wrong, he is more closely describing a Classical Liberal philosophy, and My Esoteric knows that, and has repeatedly stated why he is wrong. I think My Esoteric is right.

      However, I also think that Onusonus' definition is the commonly used and understood meaning of Conservative in today's conversations. I also think My Esoteric knew what Onusonus meant - so he did understand the message.

      The topic of the message was the difference in Liberal and Conservative perspectives. A communication occurred, and the message was understood by both parties. Does an inaccurate use of a word negate that successful communication?


      1. Nathanville profile image92
        Nathanvilleposted 3 years agoin reply to this

        I’m obvious missing something (the point) GA; because I’m not actually making any sense of what you are saying!

        It might help me to know by ‘who’ definition you are using for the word ‘Conservative’.

        My understanding of the word ‘Conservative’ is as published in the English (British) Oxford Dictionary and Cambridge Dictionary; the two most renowned and respected Dictionaries in the UK for ‘authoritative’ definitions.

        Oxford English Dictionary
        •    Conservative: “Averse to change or innovation and holding traditional values”
        •    (in a political context) favouring free enterprise, private ownership, and socially conservative ideas.

        Cambridge English Dictionary

        •    Conservative: “not usually liking or trusting change, especially sudden change”
        •    (in a political context) “someone who belongs to or supports the Conservative Party of Great Britain (a political party that traditionally supports business and opposes high taxes and government involvement in industry), or a similar party in another country”

        In British history the two definitions (political and non-political) are strongly linked historically; the two definitions being (i) “Averse to change or innovation and holding traditional values” and (ii) favouring free enterprise, private ownership, and socially conservative ideas.

        In Britain, in 1834 the old Tory Party rebranded itself to become the Conservatives.  This was at a time when the status quo in Britain was ‘free enterprise’ and ‘private ownership’; and the Tories wanted to ‘conserve’ the status quo e.g. at a point in time when the Whigs were beginning to advocate ‘Social Reform’.

        The Whigs in Britain rebranded themselves in 1859 to become the ‘Liberal Party’ e.g. to advocate ‘Liberalism’.

        Definition in the Cambridge English Dictionary for Liberalism being “an attitude of respecting and allowing many different types of beliefs or behaviour” and (in a political context) “…..that there should be free trade, that people should be allowed more personal freedom, and that changes in society should not be made in an extreme way”

        I don’t know what the definition in the American Dictionaries is for ‘Conservative’ and ‘Liberals’, or which definitions you are referring to or using?

        1. GA Anderson profile image90
          GA Andersonposted 3 years agoin reply to this

          Your question about "by whose definition..." is my point Nathanville.

          I am not trying to support or validate any particular definition. My point is that a speaker uses a word to carry an intended meaning, and sometimes that word really means something other than the speaker's intended message.

          But ... in the context of the communication, (who was speaking, the topic of the communication, the parameters of the communication), many times that incorrect word choice, (intended message), is understood by the listener, even as the listener also understands that the word choice is wrong.

          For instance; your dictionary definitions. I understood what they meant, but I also know they are not "technically" correct. If you dive into the philosophical standards of Conservatism, and the thoughts of influential political and societal thinkers, (most probably a source for the dictionary's formulation of their definition), you will find that Conservatives, (at least conservative foundational philosophies),  are not adverse to change - they are averse to degrees of change.

          One of My Esoteric's frequent citations is Russel Kirk's 10 Principles of Conservatism, and he very clearly states that Conservatives recognize that change is necessary for continued growth. What they are really averse to is too rapid, or drastic, or topsy-turvy type change.

          Sure, that is just semantics, but that is essentially my point. A message can be conveyed by the wrong vehicle and still be understood for its intended meaning.

          Back to the "Conservative" example: In America, in recent political times, I doubt that many Conservatives - by their espoused doctrines, would accept that they are really Classical Liberals. That would be the reality of the true definition of the word "Conservative."

          However, I also doubt that anyone that understood they were actually hearing a Classical Liberal definition of doctrines, would fail to understand the message that was being conveyed by the use of the word Conservative.

          Sort of like thinking, "No, that is not what a Conservative is, but I know what you mean."


          1. Nathanville profile image92
            Nathanvilleposted 3 years agoin reply to this

            Your explanation GA explains why we are ‘not understanding’ each other.  You are speaking American (English) and I am speaking (British) English; two different languages.

            Your reference to ‘Russell Amos Kirk’ being a fine example e.g. he was an American political theorist (not a British political theorist) and he was known for his influence on 20th-century American conservatism (NOT BRITISH Conservatism).

            I don’t know how it works in America, but in Britain the Oxford English Dictionary and Cambridge English Dictionary are ‘authoritative’; and their definition for Conservative and Conservatism is correct for British Political and Social Society. 

            Therefore, from your comments it would seem that Conservative and Conservatism have different meanings in the USA than they do in the UK; which is going to cause confusion and misunderstanding in communication between our two nations.

            Also, from your comments ”For instance; your dictionary definitions……” I’m not sure that you picked up on the distinction in the ‘British’ Dictionaries between the ‘Social’ and ‘Political’ meanings of Conservative.  In a ‘Social’ context ‘Conservative’ is to ‘Conserve’, whereas in the ‘Political’ context, ‘Conservative’ has nothing to do with ‘Conservation’.  The Political and Social link to ‘Conserve’ is ‘Historical’; it dates back to the first half of the 19th century Britain when the newly formed Conservative Party wanted to ‘Conserve’ the status quo e.g. free enterprise and private ownership rather than social reform. 

            In Britain, the Conservative Party’s political ideology hasn’t changed since its formation in 1834; it still advocates free enterprise and private ownership; what has changed is ‘Society’ e.g. Social Reform first by the Liberals (Liberalism) from 1859 to the 1930s’ and then by Socialism (The Labour Party) from 1945 onwards.  Therefore, these days (in Britain) for the Conservative Party to return to the old status que akin to early Victorian Britain (free enterprise and private ownership etc.), they do have to advocate change; and sometimes radical and extreme change in order to reverse Policies made by Liberalism and Socialism.

            1. GA Anderson profile image90
              GA Andersonposted 3 years agoin reply to this

              I seem to be wedging myself deeper into this corner Arthur. I am not really arguing for one definition or the other.

              I will try one more example. If, as a tourist, I told you we interrupted our day of sight-seeing for a refreshing High Tea with cakes and scones - I would be wrong. What we actually did was stop for an Afternoon Tea.

              But... you would have understood what I meant, wouldn't you? The message was conveyed, even though the vehicle, ("High Tea" as a word choice), was the wrong choice.

              If that Conservative poster describes their common understanding of their doctrines -  which is also the common understanding of a large segment of folks that would almost certainly include the person being conversed with, I suspect most folks they speak to would understand what they were meaning to say - even though their vehicle, (the word choice of "Conservative"), was the wrong choice. I think in this example, the intended message is also delivered - just as my "tea" message was.

              I think that has international application. I don't think a difference in cultural interpretation changes the point.


              1. Nathanville profile image92
                Nathanvilleposted 3 years agoin reply to this

                I am not sure whether we are on the same page or not.  If you mean it doesn’t matter how American politicians use the words ‘Conservative’, ‘Liberalism’, ‘Socialism’ etc. in their political context, provided American voters understand; then fine.  But you can’t expect the rest of the world to understand your countries interpretation of these words, without causing some confusion.

                In Britain (for example) we have our own definition and understanding of such words, and when I write to Americans who have a different understanding of these words to the way they are used in Britain/Europe, then it does cause confusion and misunderstandings in our conversations.

                Your use of the terms ‘High Tea’ and ‘Afternoon Tea’ is interesting; in that they are not terms I am familiar with e.g. not British terms.  To me ‘High Tea’ would suggest a light snack at noon (midday), while ‘afternoon tea’ would suggest a light snack in the middle of the afternoon e.g. around 3pm.

                To add to the confusion, ‘tea’ in the UK doesn’t just mean a hot beverage, dependent on context of use, it can also mean a full cooked meal e.g. the main evening meal.

                Terms used in England for meal times are:-
                •    Breakfast = between 7am and 9am.
                •    Brunch = at 11am
                •    Lunch aka Dinner = between 12noon and 2pm
                •    Tea aka Dinner (Evening Meal) = between 4pm and 8pm
                •    Supper = after 8pm
                •    Midnight Munchies = around midnight.

                As you can see from the above list, we have enough confusion over naming conventions for our own mealtimes in England, let alone worrying about Americans terms. 

                In England, if you’re posh e.g. ‘upper middle class’ or ‘upper class’ then you are more likely to call the midday meal ‘dinner’, while if your ‘lower middle class’ or ‘working class’ then dinner generally means the evening meal.

                In a ‘YouGov’ opinion poll (taken in May 2018) 57% of English people use the word ‘dinner’ for their early evening meal, and over 33% use the word ‘tea’; although the result was a north/south divide e.g. 67% of northerners use the word tea, and 74% of southerners use the word ‘dinner’.

                The other point of interest is your mention of ‘High Tea with cakes and scones’.  If you mean having a cup of tea (with milk) with cakes and scones; then that would be quite a novel concept in the UK e.g. we don’t have cakes and scones together; and whether its cakes or scones depends on which part of England you’re visiting.

                If you’re holidaying in Devon or Cornwall, then for a mid-morning or mid-afternoon break you would order a ‘Cream Tea’.  A Cream Tea being a pot of tea (with milk) served with scones, clotted cream and jam; albeit as I don’t drink tea I always swap the tea for a coffee.

                Cream Tea CORNWALL VS DEVON:

                Anywhere else in England you don’t generally see scones on the menu; it’s usually just tea or coffee with a cake.  So when we visit Devon or Cornwall we always treat ourselves to a cream tea.

                1. GA Anderson profile image90
                  GA Andersonposted 3 years agoin reply to this

                  Surely you jest Arthur. It, (the "tea" example), was just intended to be a light illustration, not a definitive assertion. Your response seems to confirm the OP of the thread.

                  Here is where it came from. Certainly not a British authority, but I didn't imagine it could be so wrong - according to your explanation.

                  What Is the Difference Between Afternoon Tea and High Tea?
                  How history shaped the British afternoon and high tea traditions

                  "Often the phrases "afternoon tea" and "high tea" are used interchangeably as many mistakenly believe that there is no difference. Both tea traditions are steeped in British history and the differences, subtle as they may be, are a direct result of their origins."

                  "What Is an Afternoon Tea?
                  Afternoon tea is a British food tradition of sitting down for an afternoon treat of tea, sandwiches, scones, and cake. Afternoon tea is served around 4 p.m."


                  " What Is a High Tea?
                  The origins of afternoon tea show clearly it was the preserve of the rich in the 19th century. For workers in the newly industrialized Britain, tea time had to wait until after work. By that hour, tea was generally served with heartier dishes which were substantially more than just tea and cakes. Workers needed sustenance after a day of hard labor, so the after-work meal was more often hot and filling and accompanied by a pot of good, strong tea to revive flagging spirits."


                  1. Nathanville profile image92
                    Nathanvilleposted 3 years agoin reply to this

                    Nope, I don’t jest.  I kid you not:   What I wrote is correct; from personal knowledge and experience of being a Brit who has lived and travelled in Britain all my life.

                    However, having checked out the link you posted, and having done a bit of digging myself; I conclude that you are not wrong in the assertions you make.

                    What a conundrum!!!

                    I’ve never heard of Elaine Lemm, the author to the link (and the comments you quote).  Although she is (it seems) an international famous British author; but there is nothing about her personal life on the Internet, not even on Wikipedia.

                    I’ve read the Wikipedia article about ‘Tea (meal)’, and although (at first glance) it too appears to support Elaine Lemm’s comments, it lacks depth e.g. appears to have been written by someone who’s pieced together the article from research rather than personal experience and knowledge; so it’s not written as well as it could have been.

                    However, the Wikipedia article does unravel some of the mystery:-

                    •    The first paragraph of the Wikipedia article describes tea (the meal) as a long used umbrella for several different meals which dates back to the 19th century Britain (afternoon tea, old-fashioned tea, at-home tea, family tea and high tea).  It then goes on to state that Teatime is the time at which the meal is usually eaten (late afternoon to early evening).

                    •    The Wikipedia article then goes onto describe Afternoon tea, Cream tea and Evening high tea.  It correctly describes ‘Cream Tea’ as I described it; but interestingly it refers to ‘Afternoon tea, as a custom originated amongst the wealthy (elite) in England in the 1840s.  But interesting the article then points out that these days ‘Afternoon tea’ is only served as a ‘treat’ in hotels.

                    •    The Wikipedia Article concludes with describing ‘Evening High Tea’ as the main meal associated with the working class, which dates back to at least 1825.

                    Taking the last bullet point first; what Wikipedia refers to as ‘Evening High Tea’ is what ordinary British people these days just call ‘Tea’ (teatime). 

                    With regards to the middle bullet point; the fact that ‘Afternoon tea’, (which historically was for the elite only) these days is just the preserve of ‘a special treat in hotels, speaks for itself.  We’ve stayed in ‘5 star’ hotels many times (for short periods) when holidaying in the UK, but while we’ll always stay for the hotel breakfast (Full English Breakfast) because it’s one hotel meal that is cheap, we’ve never dined in hotels at any other time of day because all their other meals are hyper expensive; so we would have been oblivious to them serving a ‘Afternoon tea’.

                    In British Hotels a ‘Full English Breakfast’ is standard, and it’s only about $15 per person (which is good value for money); and as they offer vegetarian sausages (with me being a vegetarian) I can still enjoy a full cooked meal for breakfast, to start the day off.  However, the other Hotel meals served for lunch and in the evening are usually about $45 per person, whereas we can get the same meal in a local restaurants for just $15 each (including drinks).


                    So my suspicion is that Elaine Lemm had a sheltered upbringing e.g. posh (wealthy) parents, ‘private school’ etc., and therefore has spent all her life living with the elite, who may well still participate in the art of ‘afternoon tea’ (something I can imagine the Queen does); and has probably had little contact with ordinary British people, who are too ignorant to know what ‘high tea, and ‘afternoon tea’ is; to them (us, the commoner), these days, tea is just tea e.g. teatime.

                    The moral of the story is that you can’t learn about a culture from the Internet alone:  The only way to understand a culture is to live it.

                    Having done a bit more research: If you are a tourist e.g. an American, visiting London, then there are places that do 'Afternoon Teas' (for the tourists).  However, if you're a Brit holidaying in England then you'll go to a café for an afternoon snack (or a bite to eat), or if in Cornwall or Devon then a Cream Tea.

  3. Wesman Todd Shaw profile image85
    Wesman Todd Shawposted 3 years ago

    When a vegan calls  some plant based crap 'cheese,' we're all free to ridicule that person as illiterate. Vegans are a tiny and annoying minority. Cheese has an ancient and precise definition.

    When a leftist calls themselves a 'liberal,' we more or less have to accept that they don't know and do not care about the traditional definition of the word because they are maybe 60 million strong in the USA alone.

    1. GA Anderson profile image90
      GA Andersonposted 3 years agoin reply to this

      But you do know what they mean when they say it. Even if they are "technically" wrong.


      1. wilderness profile image94
        wildernessposted 3 years agoin reply to this

        ??  I wouldn't have a clue what a vegan would call "cheese".  Certainly not what I do, but beyond that I have no idea.


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