Meaning, Definition, Implication


We assume that when people use words, those words have some kind of meaning.  When we don’t know the meaning of a word, we consult the dictionary.  The dictionary provides a definition for the word.  That definition is supposed to help guide understanding about what that word meant when that person said it.

Truth be told, it is not dictionaries that write what other people say.  Instead, people use words, and they happen to use them in historically measureable ways, at least on the whole.  “Enough people” use a word in a particular way, then it may meet the criteria for entry into a dictionary with a definition that generally matches historical use to that publication date.

But a dictionary does not account for what this particular word means in this particular situation.  In fact, a word can assume a meaning independent of the dictionary’s meaning.  While this notion may be a no-brainer to you, from my experience, people who would regard themselves as quite intelligent don’t think a word can mean something other than what’s in the dictionary.  Use a word in a way deviant from dictionary meaning, and said person would reject your meaning before allowing it, on the grounds that the definition is not in the dictionary.

Meaning and definition could be thought of as implications.  That is, a word implies particular ideas, and those implications are called “meanings” and they’re also called “definitions.”  If we think of words as having implications, we realize a little bit better that context can affect the implications of a word.  Say the word “nigger” in a linguistics class, there’s a set of implications; say “nigger” on the street in the South and there’s another set of implications.  What’s implied by the word in one context is not necessarily implied in the next context.  This understanding helps to defeat any preconceptions that words have definite, unwavering meanings.  Instead, they have variable implications.

Thinking sonically, a word is but a sound.  It is recognized by humans as a symbol.  As a symbol, it is assumed to imply something.  That is, it’s assumed that the sound is intended to bring something to mind.  I say “grasshopper” outloud; you hear what sounds like the word “grasshopper”; you look on your shoulder in case you see one perched there.  If you see a spider instead, you are perhaps more surprised than when you see a grasshopper.  A spider wasn’t implied by the sound “grasshopper.”

Thinking graphically, a word is but a blot.  It also is recognized by humans as a symbol.  And just like a sonic word, the graphic word is assumed to imply something.  Something comes to mind when a human reads a word.  I write “grasshopper” and you think grasshopper, or maybe you think of more words like “cricketlike thing.”  You probably do the latter if you have never seen a grasshopper.

That is, a word can have an extensional implication or an intensional implication.  Extensional implications are actual things, behaviors, people, places, etc., that words imply.  Intensional implications are just other words that words imply.  If I write “Austin,” an extension is your pointing it out on a map, while an intension would be the phrase “the capital of Texas.”  Note that an intension is just a special case of extension: Intension is when the actual thing you’re pointing to is other words.

What’s interesting to note in addition to the above is that implications vary from person to person.  I might say “indigo,” and that word may imply a set of specific ideas to a fashion designer, yet other things to a fashionably illiterate person.  (I joke that men just don’t have concepts of colors like “fuchsia,” “indigo,” and whatnot.  We just call them “pink,” “purple,” etc.)  Implications are not absolute; they are variable, varying from person to person.

Furthermore, implications may be contrary to standard definitions (implications) of terms.  A teenager may say, “I don’t have any friends,” not realizing she’s saying this to a decent friend.  But while the decent friend might point this contradiction out, the decent friend might have been implied in the teenager’s statement as an exception.  Granted, these are the stupid verbalizations that general semantics tries to dismantle; general semantics tries to get people to talk more accurately about empircal reality.  But I’m saying that some face-value statements may have implications that are contrary to their standard meanings.  Flash back to the 1980s and see what answer you get to Michael Jackson’s question “Who’s bad?” and see if you get a list of criminals, or a list of cool people who might otherwise be considered quite “good.”

This post explains the power of the notion of implication.  Definitions and meanings are but two types of implications.  What others are implied from this post?

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