Definitions are vital to every facet of society. Without definitions, my writing wouldn’t make sense. Without definitions, we wouldn’t be able to communicate. Without definitions, I imagine civilization itself would fall apart.
One of the most important uses of definitions is to settle disagreements. I’m not exaggerating. Humans are bound to dispute things. When we have such disputations, we inevitably look for something objective, something unbiased. We seek out an authority that we can point to and say, “Look, that’s the truth.”
Definitions are well suited for this purpose. They are, by their nature, completely objective and unbiased. A definition won’t change from the time I look it up to the time you look it up. It will keep being its simple self.
Definitions, by their nature, are also completely authoritative. If I disagree with a definition, I can’t appeal to a higher dictionary. Sure, some publications carry more weight and might have slightly different wording, but it’s a shoddy dictionary that gives an entirely different definition.
But it’s the very nature of the definition that has me concerned. More accurately, it’s what’s happening to that nature that troubles me. If something is objective, unbiased, and authoritative, then who has the power to change it? Or to put it another way, who is more objective, more unbiased, and more authoritative than the definitions of the words we use every day?
As it turns out, some people deem themselves to be just that worthy. Some people consider themselves worthy of changing the very meaning of the words that we use. Most of these people carry no weight, of course. If I proposed that we all started calling the skin of a tree its shampoo, you’d consider me mad. But that’s because I have no real standing in the community.
However, when someone with enough clout tries to change definitions, we have a habit of listening to them. We constantly do this in society. We bestow on certain individuals the right to unduly influence everything around them, purely on a whim. Sometimes these people are athletes. Sometimes they’re academics. Sometimes they’re actors (generally when they portray those of intelligence). No matter where they come from, if these individuals of influence can get enough people to follow their lead, we can have a whole world of confusion.
And that problem is amplified in our modern day of the internet. Everyone has a voice now (which is good) and uses that voice to advance their own agendas (which is of debatable worth). These days, everyone with a half-baked opinion can promote it and advance misinformation, usually to the detriment of all.
Now, some would say that changing definitions are just a part of life. Some would argue, after all, that humanity has always done this. While I don’t disagree with that historical claim, I feel it necessary to point out that those who tend to be catalysts for such change are people who simply don’t understand the meaning of words in the first place. Thus, it’s through misuse that we change our language. And those who defend the true meaning of a word are those who understand its definition and see value in upholding it.
So what does that mean for us? Well, we can continue to let language morph as it desires, and there generally won’t be any problem. Sure some disputes might not be settled for some time, but eventually, we’ll find peace.
However, it’s when we depend on the definition of a word for its simple, all-encompassing explanatory power that we end up having real trouble. After all …
What is a man? What is a woman?
What is a nation? What is sovereignty?
What is right? What is wrong?
What is religion? What is God?
The case could be made that this list of questions causes many of our conflicts.
Imagine a world where we all understood these definitions.