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Sand
01-16-2011, 07:05 AM
Until postmodern times, the meaning of a word was probably regarded as being what it meant in the dictionary (because the concept of a standard authority was still accepted) or what it meant when used by "most people" (itself a slippery concept which, however, usually implied "including me"). However, certain sub-groups would also give words a special meaning known to them alone.

More recently, the growth of a relativist world view - anyway in elements of the "the West" (another slippery, and by no means geographical, term) has tended to be more tolerant of a Red Queen (was it? anyway, Lewis Carroll) perspective that claims "when I use a word, it means what I want it to mean". This, however, privileges the speaker (writer) over the hearer (reader).

It is of course equally possible for the hearer (reader) to assert that "a word means what I hear (read) it to mean" and, when that is admitted, communication becomes a constant negotiation of meanings. It is possible, though perhaps not probable, that in due course this might lead back to an impulse towards settled authority or common meaning.

Nemonymous
01-16-2011, 07:20 AM
Interesting, topic.
I wrote a variation on this theme in the early 1990s called 'The Meaning of Des' (shown here: http://www.myspace.com/megazanthus/blog/389478535 )

I think in Linguistics, some people are more descriptive and some people are more prescriptive. No hard and fast theory, other than that, for me.

DoktorH
01-16-2011, 11:42 AM
It is of course equally possible for the hearer (reader) to assert that "a word means what I hear (read) it to mean" and, when that is admitted, communication becomes a constant negotiation of meanings. It is possible, though perhaps not probable, that in due course this might lead back to an impulse towards settled authority or common meaning.

years ago when I had to take a linguistics course, the professor insisted that use dictates meaning. I figure in most instances in the field of a word with multiple meanings cropping up, the contest will point the listener towards the appropriate one. If not, odds are the listener will ask the speaker (or someone else, in the case of one-way communications like TV and radio) about it for clarification.

on a long enough timeline, I think enough speakers will generally get more careful about these multi-meaning words for the sake of clarity, and enough listeners will be savvy enough to keep resources handy to decipher the multi-meaning words that do crop up that it won't be a problem.

William Gibson remarked in an interview that he now writes with the assumption that his readers have access to Google and doesn't bother to explain obscure words or references as much based on that. I think the internet might get in the way of common meanings coming back.

Sand
01-16-2011, 12:36 PM
Interesting, DoktorH, thank you. Actually, though, don't you think the internet might itself be a tool toward a return to "accepted authority" or "common meaning". Isn't that what Google and Wikipedia in different ways construct? For many people, a word or term will come to mean whatever the first x number of entries on Google sums up (after you've flicked over the sponsored stuff) or whatever Wikipedia says.

Nemonymous
01-16-2011, 01:44 PM
I don't think we have ever gone away from 'common meaning' of words. It's that some 'common meanings' change through subtle and/or gradual effects of usage. Some words may seem to change meaning radically overnight, but only rarely.
I created the word 'nemonymous', I think (ie in 2001 there were no google hits for 'nemonymous' at all) - and I believe neologisms are an interesting related topic to this one.

DoktorH
01-16-2011, 07:37 PM
Interesting, DoktorH, thank you. Actually, though, don't you think the internet might itself be a tool toward a return to "accepted authority" or "common meaning". Isn't that what Google and Wikipedia in different ways construct?

You have a point there. I think with Google and Wikipedia, we'd wind up with a generally accepted common meaning and the perpetuation of nonstandard meanings in various jargons.

I get this idea because it is happening at my office. One of my tasks is to come up with a Word of the Week for my co-workers. it has to be a business-related word, some odd word that never shows up in regular conversation but does crop up in company announcements and newsletters. Words like Leveraging, Stakeholders, etc. Business buzzwords.

this jargon started showing up in the company training courses, newsletters, etc after a merger, so I assumed it was something internal to our new dark overlords, but it turns out that it exists elsewhere, circulated by the internet and a specific subset of the media (Wall Street Journal comes to mind).

The new dark overlords don't even use it much, but the training courses they buy from a third-party vendor are riddled with this nigh-incomprehenisble buzzword-ese that the whole staff is struggling with. As the only team member with a degree in English, I have been selected to decipher the filthy slovos for my droogs at the office. Sometimes i swear those courses contain neologisms that exist nowhere else, just to confuse the staff and make them harder to pass.

and I blame the internet. Whatever horrible cult concocted this meaning-obscuring jargon has used the internet to create the appearance that businesses actually use this jargon when there is no need to do so, which tricks businesses into actually adopting the jargon so they can remain competitive.

Gray House
01-17-2011, 05:19 PM
Standard authority to a selective extent represents common usage of some time ago. When words in common usage diverge from standard authority or new words are created, they are either meanings/words that don't last long or, if they do stay in common usage for a long enough time, they are incorporated into standard authority. Possibly, this might be pretty basic stuff and doesn't need to be said.

The Silent One
01-27-2011, 12:39 PM
But then there's always the common misuse of a given word; for example, "irony" or "pristine." What of this? How might it be that one keeps the original (and, in this case, more important) definition of a word in the face of post-modern methods of categorisation?

Gray House
01-29-2011, 01:40 PM
Good point, Silent One. I would like to add that there are also correct and incorrect ways of coining new words. That a new word is coined incorrectly does not however always prevent it from becoming a dictionary word. For example, "psychedelic", to be etymologically correct, would have to be "psychodelic". But "psychedelic" is in the dictionary.

Gray House
01-29-2011, 01:54 PM
How might it be that one keeps the original (and, in this case, more important) definition of a word in the face of post-modern methods of categorisation?

Not sure about the how, but I think part of the function of the accepted authority is to retain more specific meanings for words, whereas, with common usage words seem to become more vague in their meanings.

Odalisque
01-29-2011, 07:27 PM
More recently, the growth of a relativist world view - anyway in elements of the "the West" (another slippery, and by no means geographical, term) has tended to be more tolerant of a Red Queen (was it? anyway, Lewis Carroll) perspective that claims "when I use a word, it means what I want it to mean". This, however, privileges the speaker (writer) over the hearer (reader).

Not the Red Queen. It was Humpty Dumpty. :mad:

klarkash
03-23-2011, 03:32 PM
While I instinctively feel that the effect of the Internet, like other mass media, will be to efface meaning, it may be that, at least for an involved reader, and in limited ways, it can deepen meaning.

I am thinking of the ability of an involved and curious reader to easily search for and compare etymologies online; imagine if the OED were available for free online! Before the Internet, if a reader encountered an unfamiliar word in a text he or she may have been content to accept the contextually-implied meaning of a word and move on; now it may be more likely that this reader would look the word up and perhaps uncover a shade of meaning he or she would have missed otherwise. Literature has always "played" with these levels of meaning and will continue to do so- the strictly defined vs. the commonly understood is just another dimension.

Regarding the impulse back toward an agreed, central authority for the meanings of words- one practical imperative that may reinforce this impulse is the spread of automated translation. If the ambiguity of a word makes the word difficult to smoothly translate, we will see pressure to narrow the word's possible meanings.

The concern here is that the likely mechanism to make such determinations- the use patterns of huge numbers of people, i.e. an "average" of the most common sense in which a word is used in Google searches or the like- is susceptible to being gamed. If someone's financial bottom line or political supremacy is dependent on the ascendancy of a certain meaning, we can expect to see exploitation (see for example in recent news the subject of "content farms" gaming Google search results for financial gain).