Thursday, October 30, 2008


From, Semantics is very neatly described as "the study of meaning." I find that much of my life has been spent debating semantics with people. I grew up with a lot of kids that would listen to everything a person said (and often that person was me) in the hope of finding one element to tear apart. Whenever they couldn't find a serious issue with it, they would attack the semantics - the meaning of a particular word I used - in the hopes of tearing down my argument.

And yes, they did it even if we weren't actually arguing.

By the end of high school, everyone who knew me would agree I talked like a politician. I couched my terms so carefully with qualifiers (such as "for the most part" or "a lot of the time") so the only thing left to debate was semantics. I did it because I grew tired of the constant debates and wanted to be ready to defend myself. As long as I used words I knew, I was safe. Most of the time.

I actually love to study language, and especially meaning. I enjoy learning new words and sharing words I know with others. Because of my father, I also work hard much of the time (see what I mean about couching?) to be precise in what I say. Right now, though, I think too much of the debate in politics has boiled down to a debate over semantics instead of actual substantive comparison of ideas. People would rather label every idea as "socialist" or "capitalist", "communist" or "corporate", or whatever other pigeon-holed word makes the other side look bad.

Recently I was trying to explain the nature of economics to my cousin who just so happens to be working on a masters in mathematics. I said that the way to get people to do something is to incentivize them. At the word incentivize, he got up, walked over to the bookshelf, and started flipping through an old dictionary. Reaching the page where that word might fall, he said, "Would you please show me where that word is on this page?"

It wasn't there, obviously. Which was his point, to simply ignore my argument because I used a word not in his dictionary. He really didn't care about what I was saying, so much as how to tear it apart. I gave him the definition, though, which turned out to be almost exactly what could be found on, "to give incentives to". As someone who has studied linguistics a little in my Latin classes, I know that the word is simply constructed from the noun underlying it, and there is nothing wrong with forming a verb that way. That process is actually called making a gerund. I find incentivize is a synonym for motivate, though perhaps a more specific and clear term. It is also in regular useage among business academics, and even among many normal folk in my experience.

I must admit, though, that I was just as guilty of a semantic argument later that evening. He kept using the word "anti-intellectual" over and over, so I turned the still-open dictionary around and said, "Would you kindly show me where that word is in your dictionary?"

"Touche." was all he said. When pressed, he finally came up with, "An inch deep and a mile wide." which didn't sound terribly intellectual to me. So I looked up the definition for him: anti-intellectual. I found a great deal of irony in the idea that an "intellectual" disliked the use of unfamiliar words. Does that mean he was the anti-intellectual?

-- Robert

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