On the meaning of words

What do we mean by democracy? How do we define capitalism or socialism? Part of the challenge when discussing these ideas is that we all have different definitions of the ideas themselves.

CS Lewis complained about certain words losing their meaning, and making communication more difficult as a result:

“The word gentlemen originally meant something recognizable; one who had a coat of arms and some landed property. When you called someone ‘a gentleman’ you were not paying them a compliment, but merely stating a fact (p. xiii)… A gentleman, once it has been spiritualized and refined out of its old coarse, objective sense, means hardly more than a man whom the speaker likes. As a result gentleman is now a useless word… Now if once we allow people to start spiritualizing and refining, as they might say ‘deepening’, the sense of the word Christian, it too will speedily become a useless word (p. xiv).” Mere Christianity

The word democracy has taken a similar course. It increasingly means a system of government the author likes, and it can be defined however they choose. Hence why some of the most undemocratic nations style themselves as the “People’s Democratic Republic”. At the opposite end, fascism has frequently lost its original technical meaning, and just means a government the author doesn’t like. Most western governments could today be defined as both democratic and fascist, without any contradiction. (If this seems odd, just look up the definitions!)

All of this is simply an introduction to an excellent post over at Samizdata by Rob Fisher, entitled “The map is not the territory“. It’s hard to excerpt from, so just go and read it all!


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5 Responses to On the meaning of words

  1. Pingback: Democracy is Bitching « mattdolman

  2. I somewhat disagree with Lewis which is unusual … Language is not a fixed entity and something that changes and develops over time; it has to in order to remain relevant and employable. Words always have multiple meanings and nuances … and playing with that gives those of us in academia hours of fun!

    • andyfrith2 says:

      Words do indeed change meaning over time – and that’s often necessary. The main problem (which is more the focus of the Samizdata posting) is that words with very flexible definitions, such as “democracy”, are problematic as it is all to easy to argue past each other as we have different definitions of these words.

  3. rigbyte says:

    A very important point. When it becomes impossible to state precisely what one means and thus be understood, then useful communication is at an end. I blame the education of the masses–the language has been dumbed down so they can understand… but they aren’t listening so everyone loses.
    I think it is a long time since Christianity lost all meaning. The plethora of sects ranging from Exclusive Brethren through to the Metropolitan church makes any definition meaningless… which is a good thing in my opinion.

    • andyfrith2 says:

      The scary thing is seeing the process Orwell describing in 1984 take place for real – as language is manipulated to serve certain political goals and ceases to be an objective means of communicating ideas. All 3 parties in this country like to talk about “fairness” to describe quite different policies…

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