An Argument on the True Meaning of Words

There are instances where the “true meaning” of a word is debated over. The term “true meaning” is put forth to distinguish a particular meaning from a misconception. For example, to describe an “automobile” as a cup of coffee would be a grave misconception over what the term, “automobile,” actually means. It is in this sense that a basis for determining what meaning is to be accepted will be argued for. The scope of this essay will pertain only to what should be accepted as the meaning of a word rather than to the use of rhetoric in one’s communication. That is, in debates, it may be helpful to allow one’s interlocutor to clarify their particular usage of a term so that a debate may ensue without interruptions from arguments over semantics. Rhetorical methods will not be explored in this essay. Rather, this essay is about semantics, and particularly what warrants the usage of one meaning for a term over another. In accordance with the principle of utility, it will be argued that the accepted meaning of a term should be grounded in authoritative dictionaries, etymology, historical usage, and intellectual tradition.

Words are units of meaning that serve to facilitate communication, so the ease of communication should be the guiding principle when determining the accepted meaning of a particular word. Language, of which words are a subset of, is a tool that exists for the purposes of communicating meanings. Anything which is unintelligible is not language, and so neither can words be words if they fail to have meaning. In virtue of the identity of words, they are necessarily bound to meaning. Words, in being a subset of language, serve the purpose of communication. A useful word, thus, will be effective in communicating meaning. As communication cannot occur between individuals without agreeing upon the meaning of words, having a common acceptance between the interlocutors is what determines the effectiveness of the word. To whom the communication is intended will determine what scope of acceptance is warranted, and indeed this is found to be the case in language already. Certain words may take on different meanings between common parlance and professional jargon. Thus, the degree of acceptance may be limited by a consideration of the individuals who are intended to receive the communication. What’s important to take away from this is that the accepted meaning of a word should be determined according to its effectiveness in communicating meaning.

One of the more common arguments presented on this topic is that the accepted meaning of a term should be determined by the most-accepted meaning, but this would cause ineffective communication by making language complex and obscure. Barring secret communications, an ideal state of affairs would be for every word to have a consistently agreed-upon meaning for all members of a particular language, thus resulting in a maximally effective language. Note, in particular, that the ideal is for consistently agreed-upon meanings, not for consistently known meanings. This distinction is drawn because knowing a particular meaning for the purposes of communication is a matter of rhetoric. This is, in other words, something that affects the merit of the speaker but has nothing to do with the merit of the words. If the meaning of the words are consistently agreed-upon, even though they may not be known to the communicator, the single meaning can at least be discovered and this would prevent miscommunication. As such, the ideal state of affairs would be a consistently agreed-upon meaning for all words for all members of a particular language. However short reality may fall of these particular circumstances, this is the most ideal end to which one should strive for. Accepting the meanings of terms on the basis of wide-acceptance would seem to meet this criteria or at least would seemingly be the best qualifier for the criteria, but it would not work out practically. For instance, individuals could not be consistently certain of a true meaning at any point in time. If it is the case that the wide-acceptance of a particular meaning is the only criteria, one could not be certain of whether a seemingly wide-acceptance of a particular meaning was wide-acceptance among members of the language or merely wide-acceptance among their particular sub-group of that language (i.e. nation-state, municipality, workplace, etc.). Given that an individual could not reasonably gauge the true meaning on that criteria, divergences in what an accepted true meaning is would vary from language sub-group to sub-group. This, in practice, moves away from the ideal. Even if it were granted that an individual could know what was the most widely-accepted meaning for all the members of a particular language, having this as the only basis for the agreed-upon meaning of words would lead to a disordered language. Even if words are unfamiliar to individuals, meanings stand a good chance of being approximated by analyzing the individual morphemes of the word. To take an example, if a person knew the words “inbound,” “outbound,” and “inward,” they would stand a much better chance of determining the meaning of the unfamiliar term, “outward,” as referring to a direction away from the point of origin. If the new meanings of words pay no mind to morphemes or etymology, the ability to communicate becomes substantially more complex. Finally, language is not something that merely exists in the present. If the meaning of terms was decided only by majority-acceptance, it is possible and even likely that, given enough time, the meanings of particular terms would end up significantly different from their original meaning. Due to this, it would become far more difficult to understand historical works (books, music, films) the older they were. As most institutions–be they institutions of politics, science, film, or something else–rely on the transmission of information from older generations to newer generations, the ability of individuals to learn from the work of those before them would be greatly stunted. By extension, societal progress would also be greatly stunted and, at worst, society may actually degenerate. If the true meanings of words were to be determined only by wide acceptance then communication would be far more complex and its utility greatly perverted, by merit of the divergence of meanings in practice, the absence of morphemes, and the obscuring of historical works.

Given that communication would break down if the true meanings of words were determined solely by wide-acceptance, true meanings should be organized according to a logical order, preferably one which abides by etymology, historical consistency, and intellectual tradition. In addition, because it is impracticable to expect an individual to know or learn of the true meanings of words by judging their usage among their peers (for mistakes are to be expected), true meanings should be learned with reference to authoritative dictionaries. As it was mentioned earlier, when words are constructed using morphemes that may be shared between other words, communication is far easier. Meaning stands a greater chance of being deciphered when words consist of morphemes, so the true meaning of a word should composed of morphemes common to other words. At the very least, words will be better understood if the lineage of morphemes (i.e. their etymology) is not radically altered. Given this, etymology should be one of the guiding principles in accepting or rejecting the true meaning of a particular word. This will naturally restrict words to having relatively consistent meanings throughout history. If an individual is arguing for the redefinition of a particular word, the redefinition should not radically alter the original meaning of the word. The more consistent the meanings of words remain over time, the more effective communication will be and the more accessible historical works will be. There are instances, however, where new terms are coined to describe meanings not previously captured by existing words. While, ideally, these words should be coined with regard for the etymological origins, sometimes they are not. Whatever the case may be, in adhering to a concern for historical consistency, the redefining of coined terms should pay mind to the intellectual tradition of the term itself. That is, one should strive to be consistent with the original usage of the term. In application, take the understanding of “morality” by Plato and Aristotle. Both used the term but they referred to significantly different things. For Plato, morality referred to a kind of communitarian unity and harmony. For Aristotle, morality referred to a kind of happiness for the individuals of a community. These are quite different conceptions of morality, but their core focus was what constituted a good life or the best state of affairs. As different as these conceptions may be, they still fall within the original intention of the term. Similarly, democracy has, at different points in time, referred to direct democracy (where all citizens participate in the administration and executive functions of the state) or representative democracy (where citizens vote for individuals to represent them by performing those functions in their interest). While these notions are different, there is a line of consistency between them because the intention and scope of the term, rule by the people, is still carried forth. For the sake of effective communication, any words which take on new meanings should fall under the original scope of the word and should be connected to the lineage of meanings which that word has had (i.e. its intellectual tradition). New words are coined in order to communicate meanings not captured by words that already exist. In this light, so too should new definitions only be accepted if they capture new meanings that don’t already exist. Thus, if a new meaning for a word is to be proposed, it shouldn’t merely be asserted. Not only should it fall within the intellectual tradition of the word itself, but it should be accompanied by some theory or argument in which the new meaning brings further clarification to the issues within the scope of the term. Returning to the work of Aristotle, his redefinition of the term, morality, so that it corresponded to the welfare and happiness of the citizenry was accompanied by argumentation that demonstrated why his redefinition is useful. By arguing that the state arises from the natural sociability of humans and because it is the fulfilment of their development (their development being the meeting of their needs), it became useful to conceive of the best state of affairs as meeting those needs. The meaning of “morality” stayed within the word’s scope (the best state of affairs) but the redefinition was warranted as the term clarified meaning and produced new meaning. This made the redefinition useful. Thus, the redefinition of a coined term or similar jargon term is warranted so long as it pays mind to the intellectual tradition of the word, adheres to the scope of the original usage of the word, and so long as it actually contributes clarification or new meaning that makes the redefinition useful. Now, while these principles are all well and good, it remains the case that individuals will have difficulty in determining the true meaning of words if they solely rely on social interactions. Mistakes and misconceptions are bound to crop up, so there is great risk for language to become disordered still. Thus, authoritative dictionaries should be regarded as the authority on what a particular word means. This would solve the problem of how to determine a word’s true meaning. However, what makes a dictionary authoritative? Quite simply, it should abide by the principles previously mentioned. If it does not, it should not be considered authoritative. The true meanings of words, thus, should be determined according to the word’s etymology, its historical usage, and its intellectual tradition, and the speakers of a language should regard authoritative dictionaries as their source for knowing the true meanings of words.

Useful words are those which contribute to effective communication, which relies upon commonly agreed-upon meanings. As relying upon widespread agreement on terms would be both impracticable and would make a language more complex and obscure (thus rendering words useless), a logical order is required to determine the true meanings of words that should be accepted. The true meanings of words should be determined according to their etymology, their historical usage, and their intellectual tradition. The true meanings of words should be known through authoritative dictionaries, with authority being determined by their adherence to these principles. This is by no means an exhaustive list of principles, but it serves to highlight the difficulty in allowing popular conception to determine the meaning of words. While other useful principles are bound to exist, this essay highlights some of the parameters and core considerations for determining the true meaning of words. There will be grey-areas, surely, where one case for the true meaning of a word will seem just as valid as an opposing case for the true meaning of that word, but this does not mean that the principles are flawed and should be disregarded. As long as the two extremes are noted (that of a maximally-effective language because all true meanings are agreed-upon and its opposite), so too can one conceive of these extremes in practice. Language can operate as a system which disregards etymology, historical usage, intellectual tradition, and dictionaries entirely, or it can operate to regard them perfectly. Each system’s approach would produce wildly different results. So long as this remains the case, apparent ambiguities or grey-areas do not call the principles into question. Furthermore, there may be instances where a particular meaning is argued to fall outside of the scope of the original term. This, as with the aforementioned grey-areas, does not indicate that the principles are questionable. Questions of just how authoritative a particular dictionary is may yet be another contentious and uncertain issue, but these are all debates that may be had within the framework of these principles. These principles are in-line with the utility of language and so, while ambiguities may arise, the principles are not flawed on this account. As it exists in language already, there will be a different set of meanings that are accepted between different groups of individuals. The most clear example is the difference between common parlance and technical jargon. Ideally, all meanings will be agreed-upon, but the realistic state of language is that words have come to encompass multiple meanings. What matters most is keeping language as useful as possible, and this relies on structuring the meaning of words around their etymology, historical usage, and intellectual tradition, as is captured in authoritative dictionaries.


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