Semantics Matter

When I use a term, it means whatever I choose it to mean โ€” nothing more, and nothing less – Humpty Dumpty, in Alice in Wonderland

Semantics matter. I’m sorry, but they do.

When a politician denigrates a group of people in an off-the-cuff remark, and then releases a weasely non-apology saying “I’m sorry if anyone interpreted my words as demeaning and took offense”, we rightfully object.

It’s the same in interpersonal communication. If Tom and Alice are close friends, and Alice is a vocal animal-rights activist, and in conversation with her Tom calls all animal-rights activists “deluded” and suggests that their moral code is inferior, I think most people would consider Alice justified in taking offense. And I don’t know about you, but I think she’d be rightly unsatisfied if his response was “If I had meant you, I would have said ‘including you'”. Normally, when you want to make a general negative statement about a group that your audience is a member of, without including them in the judgementm, you say something like “present company excluded, of course”. The exclusion is not assumed.

I hate it, hate it, hate it when people refuse to take responsibility for the full import of their words, claiming that since it wasn’t intended offensively, the listener should not have taken offence. It makes communication impossible, in my opinion. Unlike Humpty Dumpty, our words do not mean whatever we want them to mean.

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  1. Dare I ask who did it??

    I betting Kerry.. knowing your duty to keep the left in line… ๐Ÿ™‚

    In any case.. I agree with you.. with only the disclaimer that there are, of course, occasions when a lack of context or the “range of meanings” of terms can play a role that does make it possible that people weren’t trying to be offensive…

    On the other hand.. I think I have more of a problem when the words and the actions don’t correspond… like.. “I am here to support our troops” while then cutting their combat pay…

    1. Re: Dare I ask who did it??

      No one in the public sphere. This was a private conversation with someone.

      Honestly, the first politician that sprang to mind when writing this was Trent Lott.

      1. Re: Dare I ask who did it??

        By the way, I agree that Trent Lott is truly a fucker….

  2. While you’re being nit-picky, spelling matters too.

  3. BTW, passive-aggressive behavior, like this, is not helping.

  4. friends so often roll their eyes at me and say i pay too much attention to semantics, but semantics is everything.
    mean what you say, or i’ll assume you say what you mean.
    (can’t remember the Lewis Carroll quote right now)

    when verbal communication is all we really have to make others understand us, it’s all the more important we are absolutely clear. and it’s not just connotation or “waiving all responsibility for our own words”, but the assumption that others know what you mean even though you say something quite different.

    1. You would assume that your dearest friend intentionally meant to offend you by speaking poorly about a larger group that happens to include you? You would just assume that what they said included you? I don’t get that.

      I would expect that my friends, those who really know me and consider me a close friend, to understand that when I speak poorly of a group to which they happen to belong that “present company [is] excluded, of course.” I mean why would I have to say, “…of course,” as Avdi writes, if it’s not assumed that I do not include them. Saying, “…of course,” implies that it is understood already that I am not including you in that larger group. I’m just being efficient with words.

      1. i’m speaking generally about semantics.
        i guess i hadn’t made that clear enough that i was avoiding the general “speaking offendingly against you but excluding you” issue. i ran off on the semantics topic.

  5. recently I said on my journal that all cat haters freak me out.. I probably offended someone..


  6. I agree that the basic logic, if someone says all A are B, and I am an A, they included me as being in B unless they specifically exlude me.

    On the other hand, we all urge people to be upfront with their feelings. Id rather be offended by someone’s basic response, and at least know where they really stand, than have them cover up with insincere exclusions and leave me not really knowing what they think of me or the issue.

    1. I agree that the basic logic, if someone says all A are B, and I am an A, they included me as being in B unless they specifically exlude me.

      I agree. Even if it’s coming from a friend, or someone I know who cares about me.

      Now – I might not always assume they meant to include me, but I’d certainly question them on it to make sure they didn’t.

      (reposted comment to fix broken tags)

      1. I was having on online conversation with a friend yesterday wherein he needed to vent about girls. He said, “including you.” But if he hadn’t said that I would not have assumed out of hand that he meant to include me.

        I guess I tend to give my friends the benefit of the doubt, understanding that they don’t intend to offend me when they speak generally about a group to which I belong.

        1. its not about the benefit of the doubt

          ok, even if you set aside the aspect of how logic works (though i’d ask you to believe that for those who have lovingly studied it, we dont bring it in deliberately, it is an aspect of how we process everything)

          on a purely friendship oriented level – if i go around assuming i am NOT included in such statements – i can easily end up in a situation where someone i care about is aghast at something and says “but i told you point blank how I felt about X – didnt you listen? dont you care?” how would i ever know the difference between issues i am excluded from, and issues the person does include me in and wants to declare their feelings about? if i were single and a man i were interested in says “i do not find brunettes attractive” (and doesnt say except you, you ravenhaired vixen) – i should assume he isnt including me?

          labeling exceptions makes more sense than labeling inclusions. but whether you buy that or not, please understand it isnt about giving the benefit of the doubt or being a good friend or partner.

        2. Yes, but “girls” is a sufficiently broad enough group to assume that when someone says “girls do/are this,” that they don’t mean ALL girls.

          1. yes but poly is _not_ a goup of such size at to merit the automatic disclaimer ‘girls’ might get.

          2. I wasn’t arguing that it was. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  7. Man, with folks like you around, doublespeak will be rendered meaningless.

    um…oops. Dang you are quick.

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