I struggled to write this post. I had to keep starting over so I could edit out my disdain and disgust with modern American society. I’m still not satisfied with it. The truth is, I should not have to write this post. It should be self-evident. Sadly, it isn’t — not anymore — at least, not in America. Still, the sad state of American society does not alter the fact that words mean things. Come to think of it, even that is too ambiguous of a way to state what I mean. Someone is likely to get lost over the meaning of ‘ambiguous.’ Let me say what I mean in a more specific manner:
Words have pre-determined and fixed definitions that are set by the fullest possible context in which their original author frames them, and once they are set in their full context, their meaning cannot be altered without changing the way in which their author originally intended them to be understood.
Now, if you will, I would like to explain this definition.
First, we must understand that the very foundation of language is the definition. This is because language is a form of applied logic, and all logic rests on that thing we call ‘the definition.’ Without definitions, nothing would have meaning. Society couldn’t even exist without definitions. Everything in our world is held together by definitions. Everything in our world functions by definitions. Even Natural Law is built upon definitions. Therefore, we should not only learn the definitions of the words we use; we should strive to use those words with surgical precision. This way, we can limit the chance that we will be misunderstood while maximizing the chance that — if we are misunderstood by one person — others will be able to correctly interpret our meaning and correct the misunderstanding. Conversely, if we use our words carefully, and correctly, others can look up their meaning so as to better and more accurately understand what we are trying to say.
Next, we need to acknowledge is that, unless they are defined by the author, words have definitions that have been set before the author chose them. This is what I mean by ‘pre-defined.’ This is one of those things that should be self-evident. In order for us to know how to write a sentence that will accurately convey the principle or idea we wish to communicate, we have to know what words to use to convey the message we are trying to share. If a word means something different from what we think it means — or worse — if a ward can change meanings for any reason, then how can we ever hope to convey our message with any accuracy? It would be impossible. Luckily, this is why we have dictionaries: to tell us what the pre-determined meaning of a word is.
The next thing we need to understand is that the meaning of a word must be fixed. This means it does not change. Once a word is written or spoken aloud, whatever meaning the person who used it intended is set forever. Not even the author can change the original meaning of the words he or she used. All we can do is offer clarification or amendment, but we cannot change what has been said. The original meaning does not change with time, culture or political will. We can’t even change it by ‘re-interpreting it’ (we’ll cover this in more detail shortly). Once spoke or written down, the original meaning of the words used is fixed — period!
Finally, the meaning of a word is to be determined in one of two ways. First, a person may define what they mean by a word. This is usually done when a person is going to use a word in an unorthodox or unconventional manner. It is also done when there is no word that accurately and correctly conveys the meaning a person wants to convey. In both cases, when a person defines a word, we must assume that — unless the author clearly states otherwise — the definition provided by the author is how the author intends that word to be understood for the remainder of the author’s message.
However, if a word is not specifically defined by the author, then it is determined by its context. Here again we have several things to consider — simultaneously. First, most words have more than one possible meaning. The correct meaning is almost always conveyed by the context in which it is used. This could be the context of the clause or sentence in which it is used; by the paragraph in which it is used; or by the general argument in which it is used — or all three. However, a word is also defined by the context of the society and sub-culture in which it is used; which are — in turn — defined by the time in which a given society and its sub-cultures exist. I like to offer this example to explain this point:
THE STATEMENT: “I keep my contacts in the cloud.“
Today, this statement might be understood to mean: “I keep my list of names, addresses and phone numbers on a server accessed through the internet.”
When my children were growing up, this statement might have been understood to mean: “I keep my corrective eye wear in a frozen mixture of water vapor suspended high in the atmosphere.”
When I was growing up, this statement might have been understood to mean: “I keep my Rolodex in a frozen mixture of water vapor suspended high in the atmosphere.”
Finally, when my parents were growing up, this statement could have been understood to mean: “I keep my engine ignition parts (contact) in a frozen mixture of water vapor suspended high in the atmosphere.”
Do you see the point I am trying to explain here? How I mean for you to understand, “I keep my contacts in the cloud,” depends on what I mean by ‘contacts,’ and ‘cloud;’ and what I mean by these words would be strongly influenced by the time and society in which I lived. This is what I meant by ‘fuller context:’ I mean, not only the way the word is used in a given sentence, but also the times, society and culture in which I lived when I first spoke or wrote that word.
This is also why I said that the meaning of a word is fixed the moment it is uttered or written. We must understand that words are used to communicate a specific message to a specific audience and, unless we try to understand those words in the context that produced them, we have no hope of understanding the original message correctly. This is why I like to tell people that we must understand not only how the American Founders used language, but also the culture and society at the time of our founding. If we do so, we will find their original intentions are not as difficult as they seem when we try to read their words from a modern, 21st Century perspective. Or, to say it in another way, this is why:
“The Bible was written for you, but it was not written to you. Unless you learn to read it from the perspective of the prophet’s sandals, you will not understand it properly.”
Finally, once uttered or written, we have no authority to change the original meaning of a word — period. If we inadvertently change the meaning of a word because we do not understand the original meaning of the author, then we will misunderstand the author’s original meaning. This usually happens when we superimpose a modern definition onto a word that was originally meant to convey an older understanding. An excellent example is:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
When Jefferson wrote these words, ‘the Pursuit of Happiness’ was understood to be a legal term which meant: “the freedom to pursue the moral and just life; the life of virtue.” But this is not the way we read these words today, and it is why we get this so wrong. How do we know this is what Jefferson meant? Because he was quoting a fellow Virginian who penned these words a year earlier, in relation to the Virginia State Constitution; and that Virginian said he was quoting Sir William Blackstone, an English Lawyer famous for recording the principles of English Common Law. And how do we know this? Because they all said so — in specifically pointed language! To go back today and change the meaning of their words is to change their will after the fact and — even then — we do not change the original meaning of the words they wrote, but the meaning we are willing to accept.
When you think about this — clearly — you will find that ‘re-interpreting’ a person’s words does not change that person’s words or their original meaning; it just makes up your own and replaces your ideas for theirs. Now, go look up the definition of ‘usurper‘ and tell me what it means in relation to a person who puts their words in the mouth of another and then presumes to act as though their words belonged to that other person. That is why we cannot alter the original meaning of a person’s words: not because it is wrong (which it is), but because it cannot be done. You are literally trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube only, in this case, you are trying to do it after you brushed your teeth and threw away the tube. 🙂
You see, if the original meaning of a word is not permanently fixed, then a word cannot be said to have a fixed definition; and if a word does not have a fixed definition then — by definition — it is not a word. If it is not a word, then it has no meaning, in which case, it can mean anything, everything and nothing — at the same time! Do you see why I previously said language depends upon definitions to function? If you could not be certain that I meant for the words I wrote in this post to be fixed forever, then you would have absolutely no idea what I meant to say and this post would be meaninglessness. However, if you can be certain that I knew what each word I chose means, and that I used them deliberately, and with exacting care, then you can be highly confident that you know and understand the message I am trying to convey. This is why I said that, once spoken or written down, the original meaning of a person’s words is fixed for all time.
Once all of this is understood, the key to accurate communications becomes easier. The author is responsible for choosing the correct words and arranging them in the proper order to convey his or her meaning as clearly as possible. The reader is responsible for looking up what those words most likely meant in their original, fuller context — then accepting the best understanding of those words in this context. No one has authority to change or ‘interpret’ anything another has said outside of this strict method of understanding. And, in those cases where the original intention cannot be ascertained with reasonable certainty, we have a duty to simple say, “I’m not sure I understand,” and leave it at that.
In a ‘perfect world,’ I could stop here — and everyone would say, “Duh!” That is self-evident. But this is not a ‘perfect world.’
Sadly, for some, even this lengthy explanation won’t be ‘tight enough.’ There will be those who will try to nibble at it, so as to undermine how I intend my words to be understood. They will do this because they don’t like the implications and, therefore, feel the need to discredit me and/or undermine my argument. However, my definition is ‘tight enough’ that, should you encounter such a ‘nibbler,’ you can know for certain that you have encountered someone who is either intentionally ignorant or intentionally subversive. If it is the former, they need help: try to educate them. But, if it is the latter, they are destructive: do not allow them to get away with it. Call them out and hammer them flat (intellectually, mind you). Do not let up on them. Beat them (with your words) until they are on the ground. Once they are down, put your boot (of reason) to their throat and hold it there. The deliberately subversive person is evil — period! Such people must never be allowed to appear as reasonable to anyone in civil society or they can and will destroy that society — as they have all but done to ours.
[NOTE: Did you notice how I was careful to define (by using parenthetical comments) the meaning of my words so as not to allow the subversive to claim I was calling for physical violence? 😉 ]