On the Meanings of Words

The meaning of a word is not its definition. If it were, you’d have an infinite regress of definition. You couldn’t know what word A means without knowing what words B, C, D, E, etc. mean where B, C, D, E are words used in its definition, you couldn’t know what B means without knowing what F, G, H, I mean where F, G, H and I are words in B’s definition, ad infinitum.

In actuality, any dictionary is ultimately circular: if you recursively trace the definition of a word long enough, eventually you’ll get nothing but loops of definitional dependency of varying sizes. This has to be the case; the only other possibilities are (a) there are some words in the dictionary which are undefined (so if this were one’s mind we were talking about that the definitions were contained in, the meanings of those words would be unknown, and so would all the meanings of the words whose definitions ultimately depend on those words, and what good would that be?), and (b) all definitions of words in a dictionary are in the form of a tree, where if you get to the bottom of it there’s a (possibly small) set of undefined words that all other words ultimately depend on (this is actually a special case of possibility a).

The same logic, of course, also applies if the definitions were in one’s mind instead of in a dictionary, in order for one to understand linguistic constructions in general. In the case that the definitions are circular, no meaning would ultimately rest on anything; all meaning would just be strings of text; you wouldn’t be able to understand anything any better than an alien, upon reading an entire English dictionary, would understand all of its words. (The alien wouldn’t be helped any more if some of the words in the dictionary were left undefined.)

Yes, if a linguist were given a dictionary from an ancient lost language, he might be able to “break the code” like they have done with other kinds of texts from lost languages (one would assume a dictionary would be even easier), but that relies on a lot of shared experience or references between the users of the ancient language and the linguist, afforded by the mere fact of their both being the same kinds of beings who live or lived on the same planet with many psychological, cultural and physical-environmental things in common. For words’ meanings to be comprised of their definitions, all of that shared meaning would have to exist in the dictionary itself.

There are some exceptions, in that some words’ meanings are no more or less than their definitions. These are highly technical jargon words, and even their meanings ultimately rest upon meaning outside of definition as far as recursively tracing the definitions goes. Also, even among normal, mundane words, some are more readily defined than others, perhaps even coming close to being defined as accurately as jargon definitions in some cases. Note that to clearly and accurately define a word is not necessarily to define it in concrete terms that allow for clear technical analysis or unambiguous classification, for example, when classifying whether something is “art” based on some particularly astute, yet abstract, definition of the word art. Sometimes a perfectly accurate or astute definition of a word is in abstract and potentially ambiguous terms, because the actual meaning of the word is precisely as abstract and potentially ambiguous as the definition is, as many ideas are.

Defining a word is far from being a straightforward thing. It’s actually a talent and an art, and the resultant definition is only an approximation of its meaning. The actual meaning of a word (insofar as there is an “actual meaning”) is actually deeply tied in with profound truths about mind/psychology, culture, and even the nature of existence. To truly effectively define a word, in many cases, would best be done by someone well-versed in psychology, philosophy, etc., in order to really intuit the deeper meanings and nuances of the word. Really, though, more important than his/her education is that the person defining is unusually astute at understanding the deep nature of things, particularly regarding the contents of people’s minds and the words used to express them. The reason this is the case is explained later in this essay where I talk about memetics vis a vis the development words. I’ve seen many dictionary definitions of words that are wholly inadequate failures at truly capturing the essences of those words, because they’re hard things to pin down.

Another part of making a better dictionary that would be better would be to define words in a much more informal way, sort of in the way you would describe any other object, as opposed to the forced form of more or less requiring that the definition be strictly substitutable for the word itself in a sentence. The definitions should also be less brief. Each word could have a short essay talking all about it. This would be invaluable for people trying to truly master a foreign language, and it would be interesting for language enthusiasts. They also absolutely should contain multiple hand-picked examples of usage including sufficient context. That would go a long way toward conferring the nuances of words’ meanings and the ways in which the (currently crude) definitions were actually intended to be interpreted.

I have seen some words defined with multiple paragraphs in an unabridged or college Merriam Webster dictionary, but only in cases where there are multiple related words that are almost similar in meaning and the purpose of the elaboration was to differentiate between the multiple words.

While you’re writing paragraphs you may as well include comprehensive etymologies for the words. It would be like an encyclopedia but for words. It would probably best be implemented as a wiki, so that potential good insights can come from a wide base of people.

Another good thing to denote in any word would be the difference between senses that are true to the word’s origin or at least the word’s “real” meaning, as opposed to popular usages that arose out of ignorance, misconception or misinterpretation of the word’s meaning, but that are nonetheless included in the word’s definition because of the philosophy that a dictionary’s job is to reflect common usage rather than to prescribe it. It is commonly argued that language evolves, and hence any new or alternative interpretation/use of a word is just as valid as what the purists say is the “correct” definition, but there is a distinct difference between interpretations/usages of a word that are born of ignorance and stupidity and misunderstanding and interpretations/usages that legitimately evolve for other reasons.

An example is the word “literally.” The millennials’ misuse of the term is obviously just due to carelessness about the analytic/structural/technical meaning of the word, while apprehending an aspect of its emotive content and using it fully for that purpose. More specifically, emphasis is one of the common motivations for using the term “literally,” but if one cares about the more technical level of its meaning at all, it also must imply actuality as opposed to figurativeness. Using it solely for emphasis is simply being careless and stupid, in a contagious way (*hears ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ playing in my head*). It even frequently results in the word being used in the exact opposite way in which it’s intended. That is, because people often use exaggeration for emphasis, and millennials use “literally” for emphasis, “literally” is often used to qualify exaggerated or figurative claims (whereas the correct usage would be used exactly to denote that the claim is not exaggerated or figurative). It’s especially ironic for a word to mean a thing and its opposite when that word is particularly used for the purpose of clarity. And btw, I did hear a rumor that the new usage of the word “literally” is actually included as a sense in at least one dictionary.

Even if one believes that language purism is not necessary, it would be good to denote the difference between legitimate and illegitimate senses of a word just for those people who happen to be interested in it due to being language purists, or just due to not wanting to look stupid when speaking to intelligent people who actually understand the original meanings and common misinterpretations of words.

Another interesting area to explore (or to attempt to explore) in elaborate descriptions of words would be the relationship between the aesthetic of a word (in its appearance or sound) and its meaning. I think people don’t realize or underappreciate just how much the composition of a word corresponds to its meaning in deep and hard to fathom ways. This goes way beyond what we typically classify as onomatopoeia; it applies to all words. It’s just “logical” (for some definition of “logic”) to separate many things and consider them independent by default, such as separating the composition of a word and its meaning, but this is a common flaw in contemporary thought. Or even if not, in this particular case it’s short-sighted.

The reason the sound or look of a word corresponds to its meaning in some deep way is that words are memetic. A word becomes a word when it gains popularity over other possible words to mean the same thing, and one factor determining how much popularity the word gains is how much its sound “makes sense” or feels natural/ergonomic or (to some degree) obvious given what it stands for. One aspect of this is the word’s relationship to all other words in the language, such as phonetical similarities and common word stems, but there are many, many other factors to what makes a word feel natural that all come together in a holistic way. Many of these factors are embedded deeply in the psyche, which is in turn embedded deeply in the natures of biology, psychology, culture, and the cosmos at large. This is why I said earlier that to truly understand and define well the meaning of a word would require deep understanding of mind, etc.

Aesthetics is a very mysterious and intractable field of study, because to truly understand it (and in this case, you can’t understand it much at all without truly/deeply understanding it, because no obvious superficial or scientistic explanations fit the bill) would imply profoundly understanding the underpinnings and elements of human nature (which is a fascinatingly deep and ill-understood subject in itself), as well as—by virtue of the fact that we’re all inextricably linked to and embedded in the greater reality we’re a part of—the cosmos at large. This includes spirituality, the soul, mysticism, God, metaphysics, aesthetics, and everything else. (Though I know many will outright reject that last claim; the argument for it should probably be a subject for another essay.) The reason I mention this is that the process by potential which words for things organically come into being and are selected from by the group—that is, the memetics of it—is wholly aesthetic if nothing else. 

As one example of how the aesthetics of a word corresponds to its meaning, an example that may or may not be atypical in some way, consider the word “poop.” The lip movements that make the “p” sound correspond to the opening of the sphincter, the following “oo” sound corresponds to the poop sliding out of the sphincter while it’s open (note that to make an “oo” sound your mouth is open in a relatively round formation), and that’s followed by another “p” sound corresponding to the closing of the sphincter. The closing and opening of the sphincter are inversely symmetrical with the expulsion in the middle, and correspondingly the word “poop” is palindromic. Additionally, the appearance of the letters “oo” in the word is abstractly similar to that of butt cheeks. (Sorry for picking such an unsavory word for description, it’s just that it’s the only aesthetics-meaning relationship for a word that I know of off the top of my head. I heard it from a passionately naturalist philosopher, who is now deceased, killed by his brother, in IRC many years ago.)

Of course, none of the facts described above, such as the audial-related vs. the visual-related components, are in competition with each other as possible reasons for the word’s popularity, since they all (and likely many more) work together to contribute to its popularity in a holistic way. This same principle applies to all organic things, such as the human body for example: an organ, hormone or other chemical, or what-have-you can serve many purposes at once, the multiple purposes of all those parts working in intimately interlocking ways.

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