James Zhang

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Words: How they are used vs How they are supposed to be used

Sometimes it bugs me when someone refers to a definition of a word as common knowledge, when I bet a lot of times, many other people misuse the words and their official definitions in the dictionary.

But I guess there should be a differentiation between common knowledge and common assumption, and by these two terms, I have been 90% leaning towards using terms based on common assumption.

And I would say that nearly all the words I use/know are based on how I observe others use them or how they are used in an actual conversation.

I rarely, sometimes even purposefully, do not use the dictionary because I like to ask these questions:

- How is this word used by most people?
- What is the intuitive meaning of the word (probably based on first impression)?
- What connotations do these words carry that dictionaries sometimes cannot tell you?

So how do you guys use your words, where did you learn the definitions, and what is your opinion on how people should use words?

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    Sep 20 2012: Out of thumbs up... but, good question.

    Personally I fight myself on this issue over and over again. To me what it comes down to, is "Do the ends justify the means?"... On both sides of the issue.

    What I mean by that... Is that, for example... If someone suggests that America, is a capitalist country. My first instinct is to correct them, and suggest that all of our corporations are subsidized by the federal reserve, and the tax payers, so that assumption is without any basis in reality. People don't like to be corrected.

    I think it is the right thing to do. I think in order to communicate at all, words need to have objective definitions. You need to be able to look up capitalism, and be pointed to seminal works which define the concept, as well as given the simple definition... or else, there is no reason for the word to exist.

    In order to communicate in modern society however, I have to accept, that words have accepted definitions, which are fundamentally inaccurate... So I have to constantly re define certain terms for people, or argue with them based on their irrational bias... Do the ends justify the means?

    Is it worth it to distort language itself, in order to be a more effective communicator.

    Or, is it worth it to constantly refer back to accepted definitions, and explain the definitions of words to people, alienating half your audience.

    I usually choose the latter... but I wanted to major in film or literature as a child... So, I value the definitions of words, quite a bit more than the average human being. I also crank out pages of nonsense every day though, so I butcher the language from time to time just like everyone else. I think a bit of both is necessary for successful communication.
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      Sep 20 2012: Kudos, sir, with one caveat. Language should be handled as carefully as a child. . . butchering is never necessary!
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      Sep 20 2012: Hmm, I see what your point David.

      "In order to communicate in modern society however, I have to accept, that words have accepted definitions, which are fundamentally inaccurate... So I have to constantly re define certain terms for people, or argue with them based on their irrational bias... Do the ends justify the means?

      Is it worth it to distort language itself, in order to be a more effective communicator."

      Hmm, perhaps it's not that it's worth distorting the language or not, it's more of can we stop the distortion of language? And I think it would take a lot of effort to stop that distortion. In the bigger picture, perhaps definitions of some words change based on the new connotations and modern usages of the words.

      The US English language was very different 150 years ago than it is now.
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        Sep 21 2012: Sometimes it is evolving... Sometimes it is distorting. The best example I can give you is capitalism.

        If humanity, chooses to call what the United States is doing now capitalism... then, when it fails... They can blaim the "capitalist model". I'm sure you've seen these conversations growing in popularity worldwide.

        In that case... What has actually happened? We now have a state planned economy, subsidized by tax dollars, and given 0% interest loans by the federal reserve. We have, for decades... and that model is failing us. That, is a socialist model. State planned economies, will always fail, because the state has never been a draw for humanities best and brightest, escecially not in America, where intelligent people are taught to distrust government.

        So what is underway right now, is a rebranding of socialism, as capitalism, and it is being used, as a tool to prove to the rest of the world "capitalism doesn't work". Thus, socialism, must be the answer...

        Do you see why words need to have objective definitions? We are actually being sold the product destroying us, through the distortion of language, and a lack of respect for objective reality.
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          Sep 21 2012: Distortion and evolution sound almost identical to each other to me.

          And I feel like the distortion of language just comes naturally. There's always different usages of certain terms, or how Rick said, we associate old words with newly introduced concepts, just like your example of capitalism vs socialism.

          It is most definitely important to have the objective part of definitions, but the subjectivity of how the definitions are seen and used looks pretty inevitable.
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        Sep 21 2012: Distortion requires intent, evolution is natural. To refine the concept of capitalism, and to add layers to it... would make sense, over time... However, to change the word from meaning one thing, to meaning the exact opposite thing, is done with the intent, to destroy the original meaning.

        Now... There is no accepted word for capitalism.

        When I talk about capitalism now, I am talking about "that theory that used to exist", and I have to redefine it every time I conversate. It wastes a lot of my time.

        It's double speak... People are making a conscious effort, on both sides to impose this on us.
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    Sep 22 2012: A word is more likely to become abused when the concept it represents becomes corrupted.
    Hence, a once useful word can be manipulated to a point where it no longer facilitates thought, but even inhibits it.
    But language is meant to facilitate communication; that is why the meaning of words are specific, not assumed.
    Assumed meanings and presumptuous use of words are not good for societies hoping for decency, law and order.
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      Sep 22 2012: "Assumed meanings and presumptuous use of words are not good for societies hoping for decency, law and order."

      While that may be true, in that sense, it is highly not benecial to not have common consistent definitions, but it is also the whole reason why we have art in art of language and prose like the Chinese 4 word proverbs and such.
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    Sep 20 2012: It's worth noting that most words have multiple accepted definitions. The context the word is used in can affect how it needs to be defined in the exchange of communication. And when one person believes the word is only defined by their own beliefs, problems occur.

    Example...take the word "Liberty". The Merriiam-Webster dictionary currently lists TWENTY TWO definitions of the word. TWO of them are:

    a) the power to do as one pleases

    b) permission especially to go freely within specified limits

    How a person will "believe" they should be allowed to exercise their own personal liberty will vary greatly depending on which definition they WANT to use (at any given time). For instance, the U.S. Constitution grants "Liberty" to all citizens. But it is not an UNrestricted liberty...their ARE restrictions on acceptable actions a person can do. However, if someone "believes" that the Constitution grants them definition "a)" above with NO restrictions, there are going to be problems.
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      Sep 20 2012: Why is it that we have so many different definitions for the same word? It doesn't seem very practical in its design since it seems like it would cause more confusion, and yet why/how does it happen?
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        Sep 20 2012: I'm not an English Major or Language Expert, but one reason is words can be used in different ways...nouns, verbs, adjetives, adverbs, etc. The word needs different definitions in that regard depending on how it is used.

        Another consideration is existing words get "applied" to new human experiences or endeavors as things change. For instance, you and I have the same "technical" backgrounds in Computer Science. The word "evolution" was never applicable to computer technology or software development prior to the invention of the computer. "Evolution" prior to that was a word mainly associated with "living evelution" (but not solely...it could also have been applied to economic evolution, etc). But now we have the "evolutionn of software", etc, so new definitions for the existing word may need to be generated to establish a "foundation" for the word when discussing it in that context.
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          Sep 20 2012: Nice answer! It does make a ton of sense.

          I'm no English major either, but I have been mildly analyzing a lot of stuff on the internet like Internet Memes and why certain things become "viral" like the recent phenomenon of "Gangnam Style".

          And in regards to how we use the word "evolution" I guess it would be kinda similar to how concepts like Social Darwinism appeared, or how the Red Scare was being compared to the Salem Witch Trials. And with each new concept/technology, pre-existing words seem have new conotations/associations. Using pre-existing words to describe new things in analogies.
  • Sep 30 2012: The more one knows about the origins, definitions, usages and meanings of words, the better one is able to use them (speak with them); i.e. as you put it, "how people should use words."

    That way they can be more specific, concise and clear if they also know about prudence and frugality in speech. And they will know or come to learn those things because they have elevated their knowledge beyond mere assumption. They would also learn about and know, their common usages and understandings so they might be of benefit to those who around them who don't.

    For instance, 'anyway' doesn't have an 's' on the end of it but most use it that way. That is from ignorance and is a dip of the toe into illiteracy.

    Would you be willing to not care? Care is a troubled state of mind. Would you be willing to let go of care in order to not have a troubled state of mind? Many enjoy having a troubled mind.

    How about 'hope'? Perhaps the most commonly believed in concept in the world and yet, it is completely false.
    It is only an expectation and nothing more, similar to faith. Learning about words is about knowing and faith is not about knowing. It should become that, but it usually doesn't.

    Frequently words are kidnapped and used for the wrong reasons and this has created doubt and confusion in people's minds, keeping them at odds with one another, twisting their psyches into mental instability or inhibiting them from speaking simply because they wish to use a word (idea) or group of words (a thought) that others have just assumed is wrong, immoral, harmful, or traitorous to use.

    Profane words. There are appropriate profane words for appropriate profane ideas, situations, conditions, people and actions, one should be able to use them freely. Many now do but I suspect it is because their knowledge of other choices is severely limited and stunted. One method of stunting and hushing others is to use and abide by assumption and common usage rather than what, where and how the word began.
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    Sep 25 2012: A definition gives us "common understanding" as what you think makes sense...may not mean anything to somebody else.
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      Sep 25 2012: Indeed, someone else may have their own definitions or they have 0 knowledge of your definitions.
  • Sep 22 2012: I from time to time stumble upon some new word that captivates my heart, and I don't hesitate to use that word even if that means I could possibly misuse the word. Once I believe in my intuition in the first place, the full capacity of my brain directs me where to put the word--so called "appropriately". And when someone tries to correct me, it might taste bitter in my mouth, but I’d also try to explain the reason why I chose the word in that context.
    In the process of doing that, I might get a chance to learn how to use the term more properly and creatively.
    As David says, "people don't like to be corrected". Neither do I. But I like to be challenged because needless to say, that gives me an opportunity of being able to improve my language skills.
    But through having some debates and efforts to redefine the word, I happen to have a chance to create my own--without going against common sense--way of using words.
    For me, I'm just always trying to use new words as a duck takes to water even though it seems like an amateurish idea.
    And the question of how words are supposed to be used could be answered through my own careful, yet audacious journey.
    Just get to know new words, and examine them in many ways.
    Not to mention, “Don’t be afraid of being corrected”.
    Without vivid experiences, an effort to understand the meaning of a word via just reading a dictionary cannot teach you how…..
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      Sep 22 2012: Indeed, and that was very articulately put, and learning words just by memorizing their definitions from stuff like dictionaries is much harder than learning through experience and usage. It just doesn't stick to your head as well.
  • Sep 22 2012: Maybe we are missing an interesting point. Except in education which I intend to include the time at a university-
    except in that case there are no word police. It is amazing how well we conform. Isn't it?
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      Sep 22 2012: Your example illustrates Edward's previous post where he said, "Properly used, words must be immune from opinion, just as numbers are. This is true because words are packets of specific information just as are numbers."

      In an academic environment teaching a specific subject, the "proper" definition of a word relating to that specific subject is paramount if all the students are going to learn the subject correctly. Non-pertinant definitions of the word would only confuse the learning process.

      Outside of academic environments, it is quite true that people using different definitions of the same word while discussing a topic can lead to mis-communication, and sometimes even hostility.
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    Sep 20 2012: Properly used, words must be immune from opinion, just as numbers are. This is true because words are packets of specific information just as are numbers. If you have written notification of an important appointment at 3PM tomorrow the proper acceptance and understanding of the words "three" and "PM" is essential for you to be punctual. If you impose, and act upon, some personal opinion of the meaniong of "three PM" you might not be on time. Using this example ask your three questions:
    1) How is" three PM" used by the person who set the appointment? (Should I call and ask what they mean by "3PM"?)
    2) What is the intuitive meaning of "three PM"? ( Should I show-up based on what is my intuition is telling me about the meaning of "3PM"?)
    3) What might "three PM" mean that books cannot reveal? (Could "3PM" mean something other than a point in time 60 minutes after 2 in the afternoon, and 60 minutes before 4 in the afternoon?)
    There are words which have more than one meaning. These are ambiguous words which can only be understood in context. Each one of the meanings for such words is distinct and specific.
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      Sep 20 2012: Indeed, words/data should really just be an objective thing, but they become subjective when someone tries to interpret them.

      The phrase 3 PM is a widely accepted protocol of common knowledge/assumption that's about as objective as you can get, but I'll try and answer the three questions for 3 PM in a more meaningful way.

      1) 3 PM could mean different things depending on how it's used. 3 PM could be a name of a all girl korean pop music group (the K-pop group is actually called 2 PM lol). 3 PM could also mean 2 PM in a different time zone, or if someone has been using the military time protocol all their life and have never seen 3 PM before, then they could be confused because they don't know what the PM stands for.

      2) But in a sentence, when someone says, "Let's meet up at 3 PM." If you never knew what 3 PM meant before, then you would at least deduce that 3 PM is either a time or place to meet up. 3 PM could have been the name for some local bar perhaps.

      But for a lot of people like me who know the protocol, since it is common knowledge/assumption, 3 PM means at the time of 3:00 in the afternoon.

      3) I think 3 PM vs 3:00 PM have different meanings. 3 PM is more abstracted, and a more rough estimate that gets the big picture across. 3:00 PM means "at this time, sharp" because by putting those minutes after the colon, you imply the significant figures of it.

      "These are ambiguous words which can only be understood in context."

      Indeed.

      But a lot of other words are more subjective than something like 3 PM. Like the word "Liberal", which I guess is derived from "liberate" which means to set free of. And yet liberty is closely associated with equality despite their being two completely different words.
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        Sep 20 2012: It requires less effort to use language properly than to obfuscate it as you have just illustrated.
        If we edit our dictionaries to give literal descriptions of the names of "musical" groups our language is doomed. Words are not subjective, they may be ambiguous, but never subjective in context or in the user's intent. You know what you intend when you use the word "liberal", I, as the reader or hearer, may not, but you know. The Oxford English Dictionary adds new words with each new edition. It is not a "word" if it is not in a respected, venerated Dictionary where each and every possible meaning is defined. Undocumented "words" are nothing more than esoteric code. (You might enjoy Gyles Brandreth's book, The Joy of Lex).
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          Sep 20 2012: "It requires less effort to use language properly than to obfuscate it as you have just illustrated."

          That may be true, and yet it happens, so why does it happen?

          Ok, but then what about usages of phrases like "Oh my God!" I use that phrase a lot but it's not like I've ever been religious or whatever.

          The very core of this topic then I guess isn't what my intentions of the definitions of the words I use, but how they are interpreted by people.

          "The Oxford English Dictionary adds new words with each new edition. It is not a "word" if it is not in a respected, venerated Dictionary where each and every possible meaning is defined. Undocumented "words" are nothing more than esoteric code. (You might enjoy Gyles Brandreth's book, The Joy of Lex)."

          So then what is the difference between a "word" and the esoteric code of undocumented words?

          I'll add that book to my to-read list :)
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        Sep 20 2012: Ooops, you conflated "word" and "esoteric code", they are two different things. Again, a word must be in a respected, venerated dictionary. A new, heretofore unknown and undocumented single grouping of letters and representative sounds assembled for use in communcation is part of a code known only to those who have the key to understanding its meaning. IF that grouping of letters/sounds becomes common knowledge by popular usage it will be documented and thereby become a word. Are you perstified by the force of my argument? ("Perstified" is something I like to use as a synonym for "convinced").
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          Sep 20 2012: Hmm perstified, it sounds like a magical kind of word, especially the way you used it "Are you perstified by the force of my argument?"

          I guess I feel perstified since I agree with what you say.

          There's Urban Dictionary, Dictionary.com, Wikipedia, and Oxford English Dictionary. People address each resource with their own respective level of formality.

          "A new, heretofore unknown and undocumented single grouping of letters and representative sounds assembled for use in communcation is part of a code known only to those who have the key to understanding its meaning. IF that grouping of letters/sounds becomes common knowledge by popular usage it will be documented and thereby become a word."

          Perhaps the same can also be said using old words with slightly new definitions, due to their new usages/connotations.
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        Sep 21 2012: "perstified" is a coded assembly of letters the meaning of which is known only to me because I just created it. FYI it means to be overcome with a strong feeling of defeat. Now two of us know its meaning. Perhaps one day it will become a WORD by being included in a trusted, venerated Dictionary.