I think each person imparts meaning upon words. Words mean what people want them to mean; meaning follows usage. I reject the notion that words have some sort of intrinsic, Platonic meaning. Without people, words cease to exist - all that would remain would be meaningless patterns of ink.
No mere dictionary can prescribe the meaning of words. Dictionaries are created to catalogue ever-evolving language, and I think descriptive dictionaries and people who push too hard on the “proper” usage of words misunderstand the nature of language. I won’t dispute that dictionaries have an effect on the meaning of words - they carry some authority. When a child learns language, they do usually learn at least some words from the dictionary.
I think most of the meanings we associate with words comes from our experience with others who use those words. Therefore, if words are used a certain way, they tend to acquire a corresponding meaning. Hence the phenomena known as idioglossia (private language, especially of young twins; think Sherry and Terri from The Simpsons).
[THREAD=896201]The thread that prompted this[/THREAD] involves curse words. It was pointed out that certain curse words have been overused to the point of desensitization - the word is no longer as offensive. I think this agrees with my theory of semantics. Overuse of a curse word weakens its shock value. Overuse is probably accompanied by improper use, by which I mean a very specific insult is used as a generic derogatory term. Over time the word gains a new definition at-large as a less offensive generic derogatory term.
At-large definitions and meanings aside, if each person chooses what words mean, how can there be any communication? The answer here is simple, there is communication because people want to communicate. There’s no point in inventing your own little language if nobody can understand, which is probably why idioglossia is largely seen in small children as opposed to adults. Nevertheless, there are still plenty of miscommunications when the speaker intends to convey one meaning, and the listener recieves a different meaning entirely.