What dictionaries do and are for

I should start keeping a record of arguments I have with people where, at some point, they look up a word in the dictionary, and on the merit of the definition there, declare themselves the winner and refuse to entertain any further conversation.  (Next time it happens, actually, I'll probably refer them to this blog post.) The thrust of the argument is generally:

ME [word] has certain subtexts, connotations or unavoidable connections which are relevant to its use in this conversation.

OTHER Nuh-uh!

ME It's hard to prove connotation, but having grown up in the same culture as me, you must have noticed it. I believe you're arguing in bad faith if you insist that connotation doesn't exist.

OTHER looks up the word in the dictionary.

OTHER Look, see? [Word] (n./v./w.e) [The definition, repeated verbatim, usually skipping over the full list to cite only the example most useful to their argument.]

ME The dictionary isn't the final say in word meaning.

OTHER presses his or her fingertips into his or her ears and hums loudly.

OTHER La-la-la! I can't hear you!

ME facepalms.*

I'm not saying dictionaries are useless.  They're a valuable resource -- we need some widely accepted touchstone for discussions about the meanings of words.

But that's exactly the point -- dictionaries are a starting point for discussions.  There's no sense in which it's acceptable to treat the dictionary definition as the final say in an argument.**

Dictionaries aren't created by the High Council of Words and their Meanings.  They're made by people, who look at the way words are already being used, and do their best to capture that in an easy and accessible way.  They do it in very small print, and in a very short space, because they're creating a general reference, not writing essays on each word's meaning.

Dictionaries change over time, and even words that haven't changed for centuries have context that isn't captured within the definition.

I remember in high school learning about Denotation and Connotation.  Words have their literal meaning, but they've also got inseparable baggage -- meaning that's there, lurking whenever the word is used, but which doesn't strictly adhere to the explicit meaning of the word.  That baggage is important.  It's often more important than the literal definition, and it's usually what sparks arguments about word meaning.

There's nowhere to look up connotation, and no one source you can point to and say, "There.  There it is."  It's the feeling you get because every time you hear a word in your life, it's surrounded by some or all of the same other words or ideas.

Connotation is the vehicle by which difficult issues, like racism, sexism or anti-intellectualism, pervade every form of communication even though they very rarely stick out in a clear way.

So, to anyone in my future with whom I argue about words:  if you try to end a conversation with a dictionary, I will hit you with it.†

*Yes, I do  feel weird about the fact that the format I chose for that exchange requires me to use the word 'me' incorrectly. **Unless the argument is, "What's the [specific publication of a dictionary] definition of [word]?" †Violence is never the answer.

Labels vs. Tags

I think I've written before about how I get annoyed with people who say they hate labels.  Lines like "Labels are for soup" piss me off.  But lately I've been rethinking my position on that topic. Not that my actual philosophical stance has changed at all.  I still think it's absurd to say that people can't be described in a useful way by naming qualities they have, including sexuality, religious affiliation, nationality, fandom, etc. -- especially if you take particular note of which of those categories they choose to list, and which they choose to avoid.  (For example, Nerdfighter, bisexual, nongendered and atheist would all be high on my list.  American, though technically applicable, would not.  At all.  Anywhere.)

More to the point, I think that the disagreement stems from a fundamental semantic disagreement -- I think the word 'label' means a different thing than what these anti-labelers think it means.

The "Labels are for soup" cliché illustrates this pretty well, actually.  If you have a can of soup labeled "Tomato Soup," you expect it to contain tomato soup.  If it contains tomato soup with mushrooms, you would feel misled.

On the other hand, if for some reason you had a can of soup that employed internet-style tags, and one of those tags was "Tomato Soup," there would be nothing intrinsically misleading about the presence of that tag.  You wouldn't (I imagine) feel cheated if you bought some soup that had the Tomato Soup tag and it also contained Mushrooms.  (I mean, if you'd cared to check, you might have also found the Mushroom tag.)  But that tag also provides useful information about the soup.  If you were searching for varieties of tomato soups, that soup would appear in that search.

I think of labels, that is, the words we use to describe the categories into which people fall, as being more like tags than labels in the traditional sense.  So, in future, I intend to (try to) use the word "tags" instead of "labels."

Word choice!  It's important!