So, You Think You Recognize the Words, But Do You?

I am sometimes amazed that human beings have any ability to communicate. Have you ever heard the statement “My blue is different than your blue”? One of the ideas behind this statement is if I take a blue object the way my brain processes that color is different than the way your brain processes it. This idea that perception might affect the ways each of us views the world is different from the technical definitions. With my science background, I might define blue as “light with a wavelength between 492-450 nm”. While the Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines Blue as “1: of the color whose hue is that of the clear sky”.

Perception is not the only point to complicate communication. If you and I had just met and I showed you this cup of tea and said the word “solbränna.”

A cup of tea with milk, in a white cup on a white saucer. The saucer also holds two think rectangular cookies. It all sits on a maroon cloth.
A cup of tea with a cookie Photo by Paul Bowney, CC BY 2.0

Would you know what the word meant? Do I mean tea, cup, saucer, cookie, liquid, hot, how many options are there? Think about it for a while and see what you think. (Take your fingers off the keyboard I didn’t say Google the word!)

I could continue with different ideas showing the complexities of human communication. However, I think this should be good enough to highlight why I think it is amazing any two people can communicate at all. Yes, I hear you “At least within a given group it’s easy. We learn to speak using the same words as everyone else”. Okay, I’m going to give you a list of words.

  • Theory:
  • Law:
  • Insult:
  • Abstract:
  • Significant:
  • Sensitive:

These are all words in the English language. Words that most people can define. In fact, from an educational standpoint, most people knew these words before they started college. So, let me ask you when you’re teaching or giving a presentation do you think about the meaning of the words you are using? Perhaps more importantly do you think about what definitions your audience might be using?

What got me thinking about this was a recent debate I saw about the theory of evolution. What got to me was the fact that the two individuals were talking about two entirely different things. In fact, one of the most common arguments against evolution involves the word theory. People state that we can ignore evolution, or we should teach other things than evolution because after all evolution is just a theory. So, let’s get back to the list of words have you thought about them? What are your definitions?

Did you come up with these definitions?

  • Theory:
    • an unproved assumption: conjecture
  • Law:
    • a binding custom or practice of a community
  • Insult:
    • to treat with insolence, indignity, or contempt
  • Abstract:
    • disassociated from any specific instance
  • Significant:
    • having meaning
  • Sensitive:
    • receptive to sense impressions

How about these definitions?

  • Theory:
    • is a more or less verified explanation accounting for a body of known facts and phenomena.
  • Law:
    • A virtually irrefutable conclusion or explanation of a phenomenon.
  • Insult:
    • An injury, attack, or trauma.
  • Abstract:
    • A condensation or summary of a scientific or literary article or address.
  • Significant:
    • In statistics, denoting the reliability of a finding or, conversely, the probability of the finding being the result of chance.
  • Sensitive:
    • Responding to a stimulus

No matter which set of definitions you choose you are correct. The first set comes from the Merriam-Webster dictionary, while the second set comes from my high school science textbook (interestingly many of these words are not in college texts) and Stedman’s Medical Dictionary. The reason for these different definitions is that in science or any intellectual pursuit existing words are often given new meanings to meet the needs of the field. Since these definitions apply to specific fields, they are not necessarily the general definitions that the public knows.

Let’s apply this to our two debaters if we look at what each said we can see the differences. When the scientist said the theory of evolution he meant “Evolution is a phenomenon that is supported by many scientific studies and experiments over a long period of time.” When his opponent said the theory of evolution, he means “A guess as to how life came to exist as it is.” While I’m not suggesting everyone would have suddenly agreed with each other about the whole concept of evolution if they had taken a little bit time to clarify their meanings they at least could have debated the actual experimental studies of the topics (I know its a dream).

These differences in definitions are one of the reasons it is so important to learn and teach the language of your field. However, when you’re designing your lessons or planning an article do you ever stop and think about what your audience already knows? If you seem to have problems communicating with someone, do you think about how your definitions may vary from there’s? Does your field have definitions outside the common parlance? Do you think about this enough when you are communicating? Lastly, why don’t we use the most powerful of all language tools and coin new words when we need them? It might make communication a little bit easier.  After all, things are just going to get worse, according to this New York Times article, the word Run now has 645 meanings.

 

Thanks for listening to my musings

The Teaching Cyborg

 

P.S. The word “solbränna” means tan the color of the tea, did you get it?

 

 

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