The Death of the Definition

Recently, I was party to a debate that was attempting to discover the true definition of a particular word. Of course, one’s knee-jerk reaction might be to suggest to the debaters that they consult their friendly neighborhood dictionary. Unfortunately, however, our current mode of language makes the effort to define words, particularly conceptual ones, a much more labor-intensive pursuit.

The slope, I would suggest, has gotten more slippery due to the postmodern idea of an invasive inclusiveness of language; that is, the broader you stretch the application of a word, the less clear the original meaning of that word becomes. We start with a word that has a clear, often classical, definition. We then use that word, rightly or wrongly, in conversations about the things that we feel to be true. The goal, of course, is to persuade our opponents to accept the validity of our arguments by using words they know, but subtly redefining the meanings of those words. If you get enough momentum, you can win the word to your side. It’s a subtle and clever device, almost serpentine in its conception.

The catch, however, is that most parties don’t succeed in winning a word over to their side, and a compromised definition takes over, giving the old word a new situational and subjective meaning. Soon, the battle for the classical definition, along with the definition itself, are forgotten completely, and another perfectly good word becomes perfectly useless.

Most who have paid any attention over the past several years have seen several such casualties of vocabulary imperialism: “liberal,” “conservative,” “faith,” “hope” and “love” are pretty well meaningless in the average water cooler conversation, and “marriage” is in a hospice ward with a host of other terms whose classical definitions are passing away. One has to step back and discern exactly what his or her partner in discussion means by a word before the debate can continue. It calls to mind the Bill Clinton trial, wherein the former president asked his questioners to explain the meaning of the word “is” before continuing the cross-examination.

I say, defend our vocabulary! Defend our ability to explain ourselves! Fight for the old words, and against jargon! If we lose our ability to communicate intelligently with one another, we have lost one of the vital things that distinguishes us from the beasts.  Words mean things, and to subvert that idea is an injustice to the word “word.”

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