What determines the meaning of words?

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.


We The People.

If you’re misunderstanding the other thread as a prescriptivism-descriptivism dispute where you’re the heroic descriptivist, think again. You have completely missed the point. Of course meaning derives from usage, but usage within a culture establishes consensus meaning. That is to say, words have objective meaning within a usage community - i.e. within a dialect, within a culture. That’s not to say that usage does not vary among cultures or evolve through time, or that some words might mean different things to different subcultures - teenagers vs older generation, for example. But it evolves by a viral process of consensus-forming, and meaning is objective in the sense that individual speakers do not get to choose their own special subjective meaning.

How could it be otherwise? If words do not have objective meaning, how can they be used to communicate at all? If you can choose your own unique subjective meaning for words, how would I ever know what you’re talking about? Telepathy?

No, that’s not a “simple answer”, it’s not an answer at all. Each person choosing their own individual idiosyncratic definitions for words is just not the way language works. Language evolves through spontaneous consensus-forming within a culture.

To paraphrase Ludwig Wittgenstein, the meaning of a word is its use in language. (I believe he qualified this with “in most cases.” Cuz.)

So the word “chair” can be used in many different ways, and depending on use the word might mean an item of furniture, or the leader of a committee, or the action of running a meeting, or …

Misunderstanding arises when one or more parties to the conversation don’t get how language is used. That could be the language-receiver, but it could also be the language-user. It could be due to ignorance on a point of vocabulary definitions, or something more connotative, or many other reasons.

So how do we know how a word is used in language, so we don’t make mistakes? It’s tricky! Wittgenstein sometimes compared language to a game. Communication only works if the rules are agreed upon.

One difference with language is that we learn most of its rules intuitively. And of course, sometimes two people can appear to be “having a conversation“ while playing two different language games.

(One example I’ve heard: person tells romantic partner “you never do anything for me anymore.” This is a bad time for the partner to play the “argument over matters of fact” language game and cite all the stuff they actually have done lately, because the speaker is playing the “I feel neglected and need reassurance that I’m valued” language game.)

So I’d say:

  1. misunderstandings can sometimes be avoided through careful attention to one’s partner(s) in a language game. What are they using language to do? This will tell you its meaning.
  2. we fail at 1) constantly, and should try to learn from our failures
  3. the word “c*nt,” as used in the language most of the time by Americans, is used to give offense. I can’t help thinking of this NSFW scene from The Wire: https://youtu.be/L68E8xLtRLEYou can try to convince people it’s not meant offensively, but this is like trying to convince people that your trip kings win the volleyball tournament. When everyone is staring at you like you’re nuts, consider whether you’re the one doing it wrong.

We think in words. Mostly (not exclusively). We are recognizers of patterns and then we use those complex recognized-patterns as atoms, as building blocks that we use in interaction with other such blocks and apply new words to describe that even-more-complex thing.

It’s all descriptivism but we’re conservatives because we’ve built all these conceptual structures anchored on their existing meanings.

Sometimes people give us solidly good reasons to rethink meanings attached to words. They’re usually political meanings that point to harm done by the old meaning. I’m using “political” in the larger sense though, for example that the sexual revolution was “political”.

Usage and nothing else. It is like a currency. No intrinsic worth or meaning other than that which we give it. We can change the meaning of words at will (but like a currency, if we do that unilaterally or in a limited way may find our usage unrecognised more widely by others). If at least one other person is willing to accept our use then bingo, that new usage is valid in that environment.
If your desire is to speak in a restrictive dialect, code or language then that is fine (and we all came remember doing something similar as kids I’m sure), if your desire is for wider comprehension then it is more of a problem.

Context is what determines the meaning of words. Milieu or social context being a large part of that, forming the framing that engenders meaning to utterances.

And framing can change.

Very interesting discussion.

Growing up I didn’t know the meaning of certain words, just knew when to use them.

I find the epistemology of words very fascinating.

This. I think that’s why language is now changing more slowly. Our culture now consists of hundreds of millions of people, and it’s hard to get hundreds of millions of people to come to a consensus on changes.

Creating new meanings in language is certainly dependent on someone deciding on the word and pairing it with a meaning…

From the inventor of “chortle”:

Of course, mastering words is just like mastering anything- it takes talent and practice.

I object to the ease at which some people say that language has evolved. If a kid says “I ain’t go no money to buy them things” and I correct his grammar, some people, many on this board, will say that there is nothing improper about that, language is about usage and it evolves.

I say fuck that. The kid is an idiot and will not get a decent job if he keeps talking like that. Learn proper English.

You are correct, at the larger scale there is usually a consensus meaning. We could not have dictionaries if it were not so. Let me ask you this: How many people does it take to establish a “usage community”? A hundred people? Ten people? Two people? One person?

Aha. That’s my answer. It takes one person to establish a “usage community”. Usage varies among individual people. Have you considered the possibility of speaking to oneself? To have mental conversations - deliberations using articulate words - with yourself? There exist artificial languages, and it is not unreasonable for a single person to invent and use an artificial language only to communicate with themselves. Even if you deny the possibility of immediate self conversation, you must surely admit that it is possible to invent your own language and write yourself notes, and even (after the span of a few days) reply to your own notes?

You have mentioned a process of “viral consensus-forming”, but what exactly is this process? I assume you mean, if two people with two different definitions of a word, after some process of “consensus-forming” they come to assign the same meaning to the word. I will answer my own question and argue that this “consensus-forming” is nothing more than intuition, trial and error, and inference - the normal tools an individual uses to learn. I could appeal to language acquisition in young children, but instead I think I’ll go with translation between languages.

Have you seen the film Dances with Wolves? In one scene, Union Army lieutenant Dunbar (Kevin Costner) attempts to communicate with Kicking Bird of the Sioux (Graham Greene). Lt. Dunbar communicates the word “buffalo/tatanka” with a game of charades - he stuffs his jacket in his shirt and impersonates a buffalo. Kicking Bird guesses the game and says “tatanka”, ostensibly the Lakota word for buffalo. Lt. Dunbar says “buffalo”. And thus, to Lt. Dunbar tatanka gained the meaning of buffalo; to Kicking Bird, buffalo gained the meaning of tatanka. On the basis of the newly established linguistic parity, a consensus was formed that tatanka and buffalo are synonymous. Later in the movie, Kicking Bird brings Lt. Dunbar a buffalo hide and says “buffalo”. This had symbolic meaning, but it was also confirmation that they had actually achieved parity - had he brought a buckskin that would indicate that a misunderstanding took place.

There’s another point to be made here. Let’s say Kicking Bird thought “buffalo” meant “hexaca” (male white-tailed deer), and that Lt. Dunbar thought “hexaca” meant “buffalo”. A consensus has not in actuality been formed, since “buffalo” actually refers to Bison bison and “hexaca” actually refers to Odocoileus virginianus. What then do you say is the status of “hexaca” to the American lieutenant, and what is the status of “buffalo” to the Sioux medicine man? Before consensus is formed within a usage community, how can the words have meaning if meaning is not assigned by each individual person? Would you argue that the words were meaningless before actual consensus is reached?


Actually, the word I was referring to in the OP as having become desensitized was “cocksucker”. In my opinion, that word has now become a generic insult and no longer carries the literal implication that it is wrong to perform fellatio. Its overuse has also made the word less offensive. Modern dictionaries reflect its widespread usage as a generic insult, with a secondary entry.

The other c-word, in my opinion, has also lost its literal implication that female sex organs are insulting. Unlike “cocksucker”, “c**t” has remained or become more offensive (to Americans) due to underuse. The word is so rarely used, and when used it is only used as a word of great offense, therefore the word has become/remained very offensive. The argument I made about meaning was that some people use the word because it is offensive - as a (very serious) generic gendered insult without necessarily intending a misogynist connotation.


Eheheh, the image of a lawyer yelling at kids about “Proper English” aside, I think both you and the hypothetical child understood the meaning of the words just fine. You may believe “Proper English” is set in stone, but I tried to craft this thread around a bigger question. It’s not so much about whether the English language (or any language) can or should evolve, it’s about how meaning is associated with words.

Surely you will admit that the “I ain’t got no money to buy them things” is at least a variant of the English language, and that the words in that sentence do have meaning, both to you and to the kid? Even if it’s not “Proper English”, they are still words and they still have meaning.


Viable giant. Elegant hilarious business city edge. Day variety theater disagreement harbor judicial? Modest operational code. Innocent top stomach admission.

Environment wound experienced separation. Migration? Foreigner self wheel.

There’s so much ignorance in this post that entire books have been written to try to explain. Do you have the least bit of interest in correcting your own understanding of grammar?

True, what you wrote doesn’t make sense to me. Neither does your point, though. You are using words in a manner that I am not accustom to, and the meanings I assign to those words don’t make sense when put together.


In my experience, that word is used far less today for an insult precisely because it was an insult to another man by calling him a homosexual. And even though it did acquire a secondary generic use, best safe than sorry and not be accused of being a homophobe.

This is in contrast with “motherfucker” which AFAIK never meant that you seriously suggested the other person has sexual congress with his own mother.

My point is that we cannot communicate if each person is free to assign whatever meaning to words they wish. Communications require there be a common agreement on meaning. You have to use words in the way that other people expect them to be used.

I refute it thus.