[extropy-chat] Must We Absolutely Rely Upon Certain Words?

Lee Corbin lcorbin at rawbw.com
Sun Dec 10 17:20:42 UTC 2006

BillK writes

>> > 'Define your terms' is always a good idea when confusion arises.
>> No, it is an utterly terrible idea.  If you've been using a word for many years
>> to mean a certain thing, just how long do you expect to remember that person
>> X means Y by the word?   It *never* helps to define words, except perhaps
>> as a follow-up explanation for what sounded like nonsense to someone.
> We are not allowed to have our own personal meanings for words.

Well, I'm sorry---but that's the reality.  Yes, people *should* abide
by a common definition, but the simple fact is that they do not.
And even when they do, the nuances can never be expected to line
up perfectly.  You simply have to be fast and maybe even loose with
words; it's the meaning that's to be conveyed after all and which is

> 'Define your terms' doesn't mean that everyone gets to make up their
> own definition.
> It means that everyone has to be able to find their favorite meaning
> in some recognised language reference book that describes the usage of
> language.

This is impractical.  There are far too many words, and far too
little time. We simply cannot afford to be hung up on any particular
word, ever.  The nearest to that (which is feasible indeed) is to allow
a word to help bring to mind notions that we can focus on.  But we
must abhor dependence on any particular word for the reasons given.

> If your usage is not recognised, then you should stop using
> the word with your unique meaning because you will just cause
> confusion for everyone else.

Very nice in principle, but listen---people won't even take 15 seconds
to change a subject line.  And NOW you're asking them to single
themselves out and unilaterally restrict their vocabulary, and bow down
to other people's usage without complaint? Ain't going to happen!

> The wikipedia article admits that common usage leads to much confusion
> in the use of 'rational'. They say that 'rational' is generally used
> for intelligent goal-seeking behaviour (i.e. non-random behaviour).
> But admit that values must judge whether the goal is rational or not.
> So you can have rational behaviour seeking to achieve non-rational
> goals (and vice-versa).

It depends on context, and usage, and a host of factors.  People simply
are *not* going to comply with your commendable advice. 

As a *practical* matter, why don't you simply stop---in a particular
discussion with particular people---using a term if it's clearly causing
trouble?  Why are you married to any particular word?  Are you not
perfectly capable of rephrasing?


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