Words, Meanings and Definitions - much ado about nothing

It never ceases to amuse me when someone trots out a dictionary definition as part of an argument.  Dictionaries are at best warehouses of currently used words with the most popular meanings.  And they are always a few years out of date.  The more thorough the dictionary, the more out of date it is.  For example, the OED was first published in the 19th century, with its second edition out almost 30 years ago.  The third is due soon.  

Meanings change and as they do, be assured that the users are not following a dictionary.  But even when a person wants to use more standard English, how does he choose the right word? And will he be understood. 

Let’s look at “honor.”  And let’s consider honor as it would have been understood by the killer and victim of the Burr-Hamilton duel - an event that would have been understood as a matter of honor. 

One of my heroes is Alexander Hamilton.  A mostly self taught genius, he invented the system of monetized debt that is the foundation of our fiscal solvency.  He also entered into a duel with his rival and was killed.

Hamilton holds a special place for Patersonians like myself.  He founded our town.  Before 1792, Paterson was an unnamed part of Acquackanonck Township that was divided into farms.  Hamilton gathered a group of investors and they purchased 700 acres from the locals.  He also founded The Society for Establishing Useful Manufactures, incorporated to create an industrial city meant to exploit the power of the Great Falls; the town of Paterson established at the same time.  So all my life, we heard Hamilton’s name as the name of a street in the courthouse district, or as the name of a top flight hotel in town.  Hamilton’s statue stood in the middle of town, later moved to the overlook at the Paterson Great Falls.

Aaron Burr felt that Hamilton had offended him, and that this offense was a significant challenge to his “honor.”  Without going into the details of the insult or the duel, the takeaway for me is that at the time, honor must have meant something different in the minds of 18th century folks than it does to us.  Dueling was disappearing by the time of the Burr-Hamilton duel, and in only a few decades, the practice of dueling was obsolete in the civilized parts of the US. 

Even as dueling receded (and was an anachronism by WWI) the language of honor continued.  Thus we have the following from Senator Charles Sumner in 1856, “The senator from South Carolina has read many books of chivalry, and believes himself a chivalrous knight with sentiments of honor and courage. Of course he has chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows, and who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight—I mean the harlot, slavery. For her his tongue is always profuse in words. Let her be impeached in character, or any proposition made to shut her out from the extension of her wantonness, and no extravagance of manner or hardihood of assertion is then too great for this senator.”

Senator Preston Brooks was outraged to be so described; so, he beat Senator Sumner senseless.  It took years for Sumner to return to the senate.

Duels or no, to this day, men challenge other men over insults (it is usually men) and deadly fights result, still in the public realm, almost no one who is in the governing class threatens violence because of words or even deeds.  

We still use the word “honor” but it seems less important to us now.  Much has changed in terms of how we use “honor” but the change is not in the formal definitions, but in a host of small matters that concern its use in the real world. We can look at the dictionary all we want but we won’t find a roadmap to show us just how or why the word has disappeared from prominence with regard to public affairs.  If this were 1789 and the Trump affair was going on then, Trump would consider the statements about him insults against his honor and no doubt Donald Jr. would be close demanding satisfaction via as duel.

To be clear, meanings come before the dictionary, not after.  Nor is there a single authoritative dictionary in any case. We learn and use most words, and almost all the words of our active vocabulary, with only occasional glances at the dictionary.  

An exception is with scientific terms and some words used in law, but even with these, the specificity applies only to the specialized use.  Thus, blood has a specific use in medicine and biology.  But outside of that realm, blood joins all the other words as being like venn diagrams collecting all of the varied meanings, so good luck guessing exactly how your reader understands the words you use.

We use words as tools of argument, but they are imperfect tools.  So when we engage in word battles over whether the US is a democracy or not, or whether healthcare is a right, part of the difficulty is with our different understandings and frames of reference.  

That does not mean we should not try to be clear, or try to discuss why we disagree with someone else, but often all we can say of value is a sentence or two making it clear we disagree.  

Views: 159

Comment by JMac1949 Today on July 15, 2017 at 5:25pm

To my mind honor is a matter of respect and keeping your word.  There's no dishonor in walking away from a fight or an argument.  R&L

Comment by koshersalaami on July 15, 2017 at 8:11pm

But you need to agree on definitions. Otherwise communications are too faulty.

Comment by Ron Powell on July 15, 2017 at 10:15pm

Generally an essayist or op-ed writer will define the operative or central terms in the piece published so that the reader can more fully appreciate or comprehend the assertions or hypotheses the author is positing.

The reader needn't agree with the definitions offered, but the reader should understand the nature of the meanings and extent to which they impact on the author's capacity to convey that which she/he intends to convey.

Once the author has 'communicated' to the reader/audience, it is at that point the debate , discussiion, argument, discourse, etc may commence.

Should the argument or debate occur re the substance of the meaning of the terminology chosen the argument is said to be about the semantics and not about the substantive elements or components of an issue.

There are more than a few who will use an argument about semantics as a way or means of avoiding or evading argumentation on the substabce of an issue or merits of a case.

My advice is when making an assertion about anything of substance, don't make assumptions about whether or how your reader understands what you mean by your use of 'this term', or 'that word'.

If you look at any statute or legislative endeavor you will see that in very nearly every case, the laws written and adopted into  the 'books' begin with a litany of the definitions of terms used in the legislation. Many if not most judicial opinions also seek to make clear the intended meanings of operative terminology in the articulation of said opinions by providing and incorporating a kind of 'glossary of terms' which may be interspersed or incorporated into the language of the ruling.

Civilization and/or civil society could not hope to move forward or advance without these necessary agreements, predicated on an appropriately accurate use of language:

The agreement, mutually arrived at, on the meaning of terms of agreement and terms of engagement.


The agreement to disagree on the meaning and use of terms or words that defy satisfactory commonality in intent and purpose.

Often this involves the avoidance of the use of such terminologies as long as the overriding understandings are not hindered or destroyed by doing so.

It is in this regard that dictionaries, thesauruses, and the like serve a useful purpose.

The standard appproach to written communication is, unless stated and otherwise agreed upon,  to accept the meanings and definitions of the words involved in daily usage and discourse as may be found in a dictionary of general publication and distribution.

Good luck with being able to communicate anything of value or importance  in the absence of this commonly accepted linguistc practice and/or arrangenent.

Comment by Donegal Descendant on July 15, 2017 at 11:21pm

Because of southern white racists and Neo-Confederates an racists, I’ve always had jaundiced view of the use of the word “honor” since it seemed a slippery term anyone could invoke to hide his real motives behind.
Accounts I have read of the fatal Hamilton-Burr include the fact that Phillip Hamilton, Alexander’s son, a age 21, was killed defending his father’s honor in an 1801 duel at the same location (Weehawken) using the same pair of dueling pistols borrowed forma Hamilton family friend, that his father and Burr later used. The psychological implications of this are deep. Add to this the fact that dueling was illegal and avoidable. Jefferson and Adams, for example, reportedly simply refused to accept challenges to duel. Hamilton challenged how many to a duel in his lifetime? According to historian Joseph Ellis, Hamilton could have sidestepped Burr’s challenge but seemed to be deliberately proactive. Hamilton’s temperament seemed to play a big role here. His last writings reveal that he expected to be killed. His death left his wife and chicken in financial distress as well. It has been years since I read Gordon S. Wood and Ellis on this topic, so if I am misstating some of these facts, I will accept correction. The interplay between ideas, ideals, concepts and psychology is what intrigues me.

Comment by Terry McKenna on July 16, 2017 at 2:08am

Ron: the Buckley-Baldwin debate is the perfect example of what i am talking about.  Baldwin’s was an eloquent expression of the wish to be taken as a man (that America stop fucking with him) and Buckley simply did not understand what Baldwin was saying.  This despite using the form of a debate and the setting of a college.

Baldwin gave example after example.  Buckley did not grasp the meaning at all.  Yet if given essay questions in a blue book exam, they might agree on the meanings of all the words they were asked to define.

Comment by Terry McKenna on July 16, 2017 at 2:25am

Donegal: agree that the hamilton duel took hamilton's willingness to take part.  i have read much about hamilton, especially as it relates to paterson (i give tours at the falls  at an NPS site) but i don't remember his challenging anyone to a duel.  on a different point, burr was a person who did not seem to be trusted by anyone, whereas hamilton was genuinely trusted.  the fact that a duel was fought, to me, tells us that there is something different in their psyches compared to ours.  of course, i agree that with regard to southerners, there is something different there too.

Comment by Ron Powell on July 16, 2017 at 3:24am

"Yet if given essay questions in a blue book exam, they might agree on the meanings of all the words they were asked to define."

In other words, Buckley chose not to "grasp the meaning at all" for fear of losing the debate, which he lost anyway.

There's only one legitumate response to the question they 'debated'. 

Buckley knew it and chose not to respond to the question. Hence, he chose not to respond to Baldwin.


Comment by Terry McKenna on July 16, 2017 at 3:30am

I think much communication is effected by the simple misunderstandings that come out of different histories.  I would bet that Buckley didn't think he was ignoring anything at all - and he seemed typically smug.  I believe he thought he demolished Baldwin.  

Comment by Terry McKenna on July 16, 2017 at 3:37am

Once we leave the realm of the academy and go into policy - lets take the health care debate, we have these struggles over using the market place to solve problems.  Both sides could probably be made to agree exactly what sort of market works via an invisible (the sort that adam smith was talking about).  they might even, with lots of encouragement be led to agree that markets with large players - so big banks, insurers, cell phone carriers - are not such markets.  but in  the end, I doubt that we can get folks to agree therefore that market based solutions are not what we need or what are justified by economics.

my point is that in the real world, the complexities make definitions not a solution to argument.  sure, if someone genuinely misuses a word, a hint will help, buy for complex issues the miusunderstandings come from elsewhere.

Comment by Ron Powell on July 16, 2017 at 3:53am

"I believe he thought he demolished Baldwin."

Yes, to the point where he found it necessary or appropriate to make a snarky remark about Baldwin's mode of speech or 'accent'.

A tactic that has been used against me here on more than ine occasion.

This conversation would be better served if it were taking place where the Baldwin- Buckkey debate is the tooumic of the coversation:



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