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The Triumph of Form Over Content When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

You Are Here: Home -> Glossary -> Definitions

Definitions

Approach all definitions with caution, including this one.

A definition is never more than a tool that allows the user to do something with language. This is so obvious that everyone seems to have forgotten it. When you consider, say, a dictionary, you think of it as being authoritative; that is to say, dictionary definitions are like inviolable laws. Even slang, which is a deliberate violation of language rules, can be understood as an attempt by outsiders to jam the authority of language by turning it upside down (for example, using "bad" to mean really good).

Unfortunately, all of this is based on a misapprehension of the relationship between word definitions and word use. We think that we use words a certain way because they have been defined as such, when in actual fact the opposite is true. Dictionary researchers literally read stacks of literature, and when they come across a particular word, they make a cue card with the word and its context (the sentence in which it occurs), and file it with the other cue cards that contain the same word. The definition(s) of the word are determined by examining how it is used in a variety of examples from the real world. That is, we invent language by using it, and definitions, like metaphors, are contingent things, artifacts which we create to capture a snapshot of language in action.

Definitions can, and often do, change. This can be good or bad, depending on who it is that's changing the definitions. Neil Postman defines power as being "able to define and to make it stick." (The End Of Education, p. 184) It is a lot easier to win an argument when you are able to frame the terms of the debate, so there is a never-ending struggle to control the meanings of words. This is probably best illustrated in George Orwell's famous essay, "Politics and the English Language," in which he writes, "In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy". Or, put more bluntly by Noam Chomsky, "The doctrinal meaning of democracy...refers to a system in which decisions are made by sectors of the business community and related elites. The public are to be only 'spectators of action,' not 'participants.'" (What Uncle Sam Really Wants, pp. 87-8).

A definition can sometimes become hotly contested terrain. One way to attack the structures of power is to attack the icons of power to reveal the ideologies behind them. This can be done through a number of means, including deconstruction and culture jamming. For example, an artist named Mark Napier posted a web site in which he studied symbols and culture through aggressively distorting - redefining - images of popular doll Barbie. He was legally threatened by Mattel, the corporation which "owns" Barbie, and withdrew his site (but not before it was mirrored on other sites: see detritus.net for the mirror). Mattel is not concerned with profits per se, but with the very definition of Barbie, and will exercise every legal means to protect Barbie from being transformed into an agent of social change.

Sometimes, nobody notices when a definition changes. What kind of mischief can result from this kind of intellectual sleight-of-hand? Too often, definitions are used to confuse and obfuscate rather than to clarify. Consider the public interest, which in the field of journalism used to refer to information which it might be in the interest of the public to know, and now refers to information which the public might find interesting. Since advancement of the public interest is used as an argument to defend freedom of the press, this change in definition should be a source of great concern. In terms of "news worthiness," the former definition advocates news as an empowering agent, and the latter definition advances news as a distracting or entertaining agent. More specifically, The former definition treats people as 'participants' in public life, whereas the latter treats people as passive 'spectators'.

In this way, the quiet re-defining of the public interest has helped facilitate the redefining of democracy observed by Chomsky.

So: definitions were meant to serve people, not the other way around; definitions are hotly contested turf; and definitions can be manipulated right under our noses if we're not careful. Seems as good an argument as any to explore the meanings of words...

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