Language Definitions and Associations


A thought on word usage.

Lately, I have been thinking about words. This is an ongoing source of confusion and strangeness in my life, and I periodically try to figure out why. Lately, it seems that the problem is that words have both definitions and associations, and when people talk, they use both of them.

The word I probably see this done with the most is "man", since it can be contrasted to "boy" or "woman". It can also be used for "human", but that's a whole different set of complexities.

A workable definition for man would be "adult human male". Of course, it inherits the ambiguity in all of those terms, but that is not a problem, it should inherit them.

The associations of the term are fuzzier. I think they also change based on who is talking, but I can't prove that. Some I have come across (from various sources) are The practical language problem here is that the definition and the associations do not always match. So the question is how do we resolve this. I see 5 possibilities:
  1. Correspondence: The associations are assumed to accurately describe the same people (or things, or whatever) as are covered by the definition. If they do not, then there is something wrong with the people being described. This is usually combined with a socially-regulated list of associations, so that everyone uses the same assumptions how things ought to be. Applied to "man" (and "woman"), this produces traditional gender roles.
  2. Context-dependent: Sometimes the definition is meant, and sometimes the associations. Done correctly, the listener will be able to tell which is meant from context. Done incorrectly, it produces confusion and misunderstandings. And it always has a nasty tendency to decay into possibility 1 without people noticing.
  3. Definition-only: The associations of a word don't matter. People can have them if they want, but they might not be the same as someone else's associations. It does have the problem that it does not explain synonyms (scrawny vs. thin vs. slender). Someone who uses words in this manner may be criticized as "tone-deaf" (presumably by analogy to music). Applied to "man", this produces the men-and-women-are-the-same branch of the feminist movement.
  4. Associations-only: The definition of a word doesn't matter. This is normally only applied to words with a heavy emotional charge (e.g. terrorist), not to more pragmatic words (e.g. zinc). An extreme case occurs in words that don't seem to have any meaningful definition at all, and are used strictly for emotional impact (e.g. adolescence). Applied to "man", this produces the transgender movement.
  5. Meaninglessness: Real communication (at least based on language) is impossible. Possibly linked to the idea that we can never truly know each other. Literary analysis uses with this when it claims that a work can mean anything, as long as you can support it, but only in controlled settings (the still think that the analyses have meaning). The term deconstruction might be relevant.
I don't really have a conclusion here. Ideally I'd have an insightful point, but my mind is being uncooperative today. So you can have a few unrelated notes instead.
  1. My natural home is in possibility 3. I don't really mind people using word associations most of the time. But if it stops me getting the definition-based meaning across, that's a problem. For example, statistics has the idea of a norm and deviations from it. People, however, don't like being called "deviant" (or "abnormal"), so you have to say variations from the norm instead. For now it works, but if "variant" develops a negative connotation as well, there will be trouble.
  2. Put in mathematical terms, these possibilities correspond to I think this is the normal set of options for 2 possibilities. If you know of one I am missing, please tell me.
  3. Based on this, you would think that the feminist movement and transgender movement would fight more. After all, they are adhering to directly opposite ideals. My guess that they avoid this because the essence of both is that they are against possibility 1, not what they are in favor of (possibilities 3 and 4, respectively).
  4. You can think of the modern concern of associations (i.e. political correctness) as a form of manners. All societies (that I know of) have these. Today, there is trouble because it is a new system based on ideas that only part of society agrees to, which leads to different standards of polite behavior. You could say that this is a result of multiculturalism in that we now have two incompatible cultures trying to live together. However, I don't think that that would be accurate. The two standards idea is deep in our language, with polite (city) and rude (countryside) standards of behavior (guess who won). Once again, the new, more sophisticated standard is from big cities, while the old, more direct standard is mostly in rural areas. It's dangerous to generalize from only 2 data points, but it could be that farm life is influenced more by nature, while city life depends more on human interactions.

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