The Science of Comprehension

How We Understand Abstract Concepts

Part IX

Words Don't Have Fixed Meanings

1. Dictionaries Don't Define Words
I used to think dictionaries defined words. Now I realize it's actually the other way around. The editors of dictionaries are constantly chasing after the ever changing language, striving to document it. A new word ends up in the dictionary only after everyone already has a common understanding of what the new word means. "Dictionary makers struggle to keep up with the new terms, but its no easy task."1

2. Each Person Carries Their Own Definition
"Each person has a concept of a word that makes sense to him or her. That concept is physically instantiated in the synapses of the brain.2 For that person, her concept of a word is the concept of the word. She uses it to think with."3

We might hope that everyone's personal definition of a word is similar enough that it doesn't matter. We hope in vain. My conception of the word "work" is different from Audrey's conception of the word "work". My conception of the word "threat" is different from Audrey's conception of the word "threat". Audrey can use the word "work" to describe relationships; I can not, because for me the word doesn't fit. Audrey can use the word "threat" to describe things she does; I can not, because for me the word doesn't fit.

How can we understand one another when words don't have fixed meanings? The answer is, we don't. We actually do an exceedingly poor job of communicating and understanding one another.

3. Two very different concepts of "Freedom" in our country
Serious problems arise when we examine words which convey very important concepts. Take for example the word "Freedom". The United States has 300 million people; that's 300 million separate definitions of the word "Freedom". We may hope that the 300 million definitions of "freedom" are similar enough that we all understand each other when we use that word. Again we hope in vain. We actually do not understand each other.

There are actually two very different concepts of "Freedom" in our country.

Recall in January 2005 when George W. Bush gave his second inaugural address, he used the words "freedom," "free," and "liberty" forty-nine times in his 20 minute speech. Half of the uses were common-core uses and the other half were radical conservative uses that made no sense to progressives.

It is important to note how very often right-wing Republicans use the words "freedom" and "liberty."

If their version of freedom and liberty were generally recognized, they would not have to. They could just assume that everyone recognized that they were the natural inheritors of those ideas.

The reason they have to say "freedom" and "liberty" over and over is that the progressive versions of those ideas have always dominated American life, and it is the progressive versions that Americans still hold in their hearts.

Republican radicals call themselves "conservatives" to try to convince the rest of the country that their view of freedom, built upon their values, is really the traditional American one.

The fact is that their idea of freedom is radical and outside the mainstream of American history and American life today.
      —George Lakoff, Whose Freedom? The Battle over America's Most Important Idea (2006)

For more on this and the very important consequences it has on the future course of our country, see

Whose Freedom?: The Battle Over America's Most Important Idea
by George Lakoff

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1. Robin Tolmach Lakoff, The Language War (2000) pg. 90.
"Early dictionary makers were not as punctilious as their modern counterparts try to be. Dr. Samuel Johnson, the eighteenth-century English lexicographer, is notorious for sneaking political import into some of his definitions. He defined "oats" as a food that in England was used to feed horses, but in Scotland, people—a sneer at Scotland's poverty. (pg. 88)

2. Recall in Part II we discussed how concepts must be physically etched into our universe in order to exist.

3. George Lakoff, The Political Mind (2008) pg. 178.

4. George Lakoff, Whose Freedom? The Battle over America's Most Important Idea (2006)

—David Deley
April 2009
(links updated July 2015)