Beyond Words - Language Blog

On Defining: Do Good Fences Make Good Meanings?

Many a quarrel has ended with a search for the nearest dictionary. The answer to a question of connotation versus denotation, implied or explicit meaning, and historical, social, or academic understanding of a term finds an ending point with a simple glance over the established meaning of a word.

From the Latin definire, whose root is finis, or boundary, through the 14th-century Old French definir, meaning to terminate, we have come to the contemporary understanding of defining as the act by which a clear, precise, and unmistakable meaning is determined. Furthermore, defining implies limiting, including only all possible meanings and leaving out any other interpretations. For this reason, the verb “define” has been used in the fields of logic and mathematics for over five centuries as a rigid line of demarcation to categorize the properties of some element, act, equation, or entity. Definitions seem to represent the terminus of a study – the point at which a final and fundamental verdict is reached and the parameters of a situation are unambiguous.

And yet, despite such sturdy and unassailable proofs as are found in a dictionary, we frequently find ourselves in arguments over definitions, as evidenced by the recent wildly contrasting uses of the term socialism. These miscommunications and mal entendus that engender discord rarely result in agreement on a precise or exclusive definition.

In a broader sense, definitions help us to form our understanding of the world. When we read a definition, we are able to attach value to particular concepts and things, to decide that something is good or bad, desirable or undesirable, pleasant or unpleasant. As we learn more, we create a sort of inventory of definitions in our personal lexicons. In human hands, even something that by its very definition – for lack of a truer term – must be concrete and limited takes on an air of fallibility, of subjectivity, and of fertile ground for contest, quarrel, and questioning.