What do you mean?

September 12, 2017

When people communicate, we often use words we know other people like. But this causes trouble when our meaning of the word is different to theirs.


For example, it’s de rigueur to talk about “vulnerable” people. But what we mean by using this word is extremely variable. Is it poor, aged, adolescent, female…? And what are they vulnerable to?


The problem is that these words allow our audience to insert their meaning in place of ours. They are useful to secure superficial “agreement”, but they are not useful in communicating meaning.


A recent US study looked at the use of such words in election campaigns. They interpreted the intended meaning based on other words they found the presidential candidates using at the same time. When Hillary Clinton used the word “security”, she meant of women and families. When Donald Trump used it, he meant military. The same word “security” in a computer context meant “from military hacking” for one candidate, and “from unwanted ideas and images” for another.


What makes it even tougher is that the multiple meanings change and grow apart over time. The scientists said the political parties intended meanings of the words “have become farther and farther apart as time goes on”.