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  And they are always a few years out of date.  The more thorough the dictionary, the more out of date it is.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 Ron Powell on July 16, 2017 at 4:00am

The problem with the current debate about health care is the conflation of the terms "health care" and "health care insurance".


Comment by Terry McKenna on July 16, 2017 at 4:11am

If you think the problem resides just there, you are missing the issue of markets and how they are understood.  

Conservatives seem to believe that (for example) that in the give and take between an employer like Walmart and the employee, that they exchange as equals, so govt does not have to empower workers by encouraging unions, or with minimum wage laws.  but economics teaches about the difference in market power between large entities and small ones.  The invisible hand does not work where large players can influence the market.  so the problem is far larger.  and (by the way) insurance professional know that what we call health insurance is not really insurance but something else (at least as casualty insurance is understood). That is, what Aetna and others offer is a hybrid between insurance (again, as the pros understand it) and offering a healthcare program of sorts - a network of providers etc

Comment by Terry McKenna on July 16, 2017 at 4:16am

Oh - and as you may gather, I despise debate for the reasons that can be inferred from this piece.  Decades ago (was it from Professor Kaplan) someone in discussing rhetoric suggested that a debate could be set up about calculus and one side could "prove" that calculus is not "true".  Decades hence we have seen debates about evolution where one side made crafty arguments in favor of evolution's opponents.  To me, debate is not the search for truth at all.  So no, I won't continue an argument.

Comment by Ron Powell on July 16, 2017 at 4:30am

"If you think the problem resides just there, you are missing the issue of markets and how they are understood."

Quite the contrary:

One side sees "health care" as a fundamental human right guarabteed and protecred by an egalitarian, just, and democratic  society.

The other side sees "health care insurance" as  a benefit of the forces of a free market economy.

Comment by Terry McKenna on July 16, 2017 at 4:44am

ron: do you read before you comment?

Comment by Ron Powell on July 16, 2017 at 4:51am

" To me, debate is not the search for truth at all.  So no, I won't continue an argument."

Your prerogative....

I bid you adieu....

Comment by koshersalaami on July 16, 2017 at 8:47am

Debate is not intrinsically the search for truth but it can be. As trials are not the search for truth, at least not on the part of attorneys most of the time. I used to know a defense attorney, a guy whowore a tie with a pattern of little skulls when talking to clients accused of murder. He told me it really bothered him when he thought someone he was defending was innocent. 

Comment by Terry McKenna on July 16, 2017 at 9:49am

and i am interested in truth. happy to hear a short opinion or a tip but argument, sorry nope.

Comment by Con Chapman on July 17, 2017 at 5:15am

I think you got two things wrong:  I believe Sumner's speech referred to Brooks' cousin, Andrew Butler.  Brooks was a Congressman, Butler was a Senator.

Comment by Terry McKenna on July 18, 2017 at 4:46am

Might have.  I am recovering from a dislocated elbow, so spending less time with my web searches (limited to one hand right now).  but the point is the same in any case - that honor's intensity varies not because of the definition but because of the larger meaning that lives with the user and comes out of culture.  (one hand typing is a bitch).


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