Thought for the Day: language and semantics

Apologies if anyone tried to read the first link ( I hit post by accident ), this is now the real thing *ahem* … so without any further ado, let’s get cracking.

In my life experience the greatest cause of arguments I have seen ( by far ) is misunderstanding, and it seems apparent to me that the most common cause of this, is the lazy and incorrect use of language. For which reason I’ve started to put some definitions of terms into the subdomain ( though so far this is only a handful of terms relating to economics ) … but I wanted today to share with you my thoughts on language, the failure of online dictionaries, and people’s common misuse, misunderstanding, and lack of concern about how they use language.

If you want to have less arguments in life, and if I’m right that many are caused by misunderstanding, then it cannot be contrarily argued that improving people’s use of language is not vital, without first proving that people’s usage is already very good … but this is simply not the case.

dictionary and encyclopaedia: the guardians of language

Prior to the internet, if you wanted a definitive source of semantic meaning or contextual application, one would look to very expensive volumes of academically intensive dictionaries and encyclopaedias … and I guess in some regards I was very lucky to grow up in a household where my “toys” included a times atlas of the world, 2 extremely large and exhaustive Oxford dictionary volumes, and an entire encyclopaedia of somewhere between 30 and 50 large hardback volumes … so I spent many hours as a child fascinated by looking at topographical maps of various parts of the planet, what was known of the ocean fooor, maps of the moon surface, and of what we knew of the galaxy at the time. I also spent much time looking up words either for purpose or randomly from curiosity and exploration of language, and similar I spent a great deal of time reading things in the encyclopaedia.

Now … none of this is to say I didn’t also succumb to false or misleading information from other sources ( I certainly did ) … nor is it to say that the information available to me back then was greater than what is available on the internet ( it certainly wasn’t ) … BUT … precisely because the information set was smaller, more reliable, and more directly related to the core of truthful and accurate information, it certainly had advantages over what kids are exposed to these days, and some of them are now fully grown adults who believe complete bullshit, and cannot think for themselves ( excepting that they think they can ).

I want to give you some examples of where online dictionaries and other sources of information fail, but first I want to discuss the categories of semantic sources ( the source of meaning ).


The term semantics basically means “meaning”, and meaning has several sources and contexts.


Etymology in simple terms refers to the historical origins / sources of semantics. However it is not the only source, nor necessarily the most important source.


Is the study of the lexicon or dictionary of words of a language, however it is also therefore a source of semantics, because words are often structured by combination of each other.

generics and redundancy:

A synonym is a word which has the same, similar, or related meaning to another, and is sometimes spelled the same. So when we find synonyms, it is vital that we understand their sometimes subtle differences.

An example of this comes from the etymology of the word “decimate” which is often misused by people to mean “annihilate”, and while some would argue this is merely a contemporary usage which has redefined the word, I have to beg to differ.

The words decimate and annihilate are synonyms in the respect that they both relate to destruction or killing, but decimate specifically refers to the destruction of 1/10th whereas annihilate is closer in meaning to obliterate, meaning to destroy totally or utterly.

Why does this matter? Well that’s why I’ve included the word “redundancy” in the title of this section of the post, because if we take decimate to mean the same thing as we already have at least 2 other perfectly good words for, then we create a pointless additional redundancy, we lose meaning, we gain nothing for that loss, and we introduce the probability of confusion and misunderstanding … so there is no upside ( except laziness – if you value that ), but there’s plenty of downside.

It is however possible that within the context of the conversation it may be apparent what the person meant to say, but this is not certain, and given the possibility of confusion around a topic as serious as killing and destruction, we also see that the consequences of misunderstanding could be utterly disastrous.

SO … generics is an important concept to understand, because – through the notion that all synonymous words exist in a hierarchy of both tight and loose relationships of generic and contextually specific meaning – we come to understand how to correctly interpret the absolute and relative meaning of words.

important note on generics:

Within any tightly knit synonymous relationship hierarchy – ie: where the word is always spelled the same, and the meanings in all contexts are closely related for the words in the hierarchy ( therefore not including homonyms ) – there will always be a most generic meaning, which therefore is capable of equally ( but more loosely ) defining all the synonyms of that hierarchy … and it is this most generic meaning that we should ALWAYS take as the “root” meaning of the word for that hierarchy.

etymology vs. lexicography:

This is now getting into the reason I’m writing the article, which comes from an experience I had during an online debate, when I realised that otherwise educated people were operating from a flawed semantic base, and thus the disagreement.

As most of you must be aware by now, I’m highly critical of capitalism … I think it’s a stupid ideology developed by idiots, it makes the field of economics a complete joke ( not even approaching a real science ), and I can’t believe people think it is efficient, when I would find myself challenged to come up with anything less efficient.

So during an online discussion ( which became a debate, and then just an argument ), I was faced with the following criticism of something I said ( paraphrased ):

Capitalism comes from the French historical period of the 14th century [ or something like that ] and is defined by [ blah blah blah ]

Ok … exactly what they said isn’t important, the point is this:

  • Like many other people, they don’t want to learn, they just want to be right
  • So they’d either gone online or referenced something they’d already been taught
  • They then parroted this back without thinking, and mistakenly believed they had a winning argument

… this kind of thing is extremely common.

So where exactly does it go wrong?

Well, whatever exactly they said, let’s assume and give them the benefit of the doubt, that the term “capitalism” did indeed originate from the exact historical context they said … let’s not even question that, let’s just give it to them even if they’re actually wrong ( I have no idea, don’t care, and don’t need to care – as I’ll demonstrate ).

EVEN IF they’re right about that, this is not how we derive correct semantic interpretation of words … and to do that, let’s use the things we’ve already discussed.

So first we have the etymology, the one area where they might have a point. So I’ll make my case by way of example, and by using both lexicography and generics to usurp the importance of the etymological argument.

Let’s say we hypothetically go back in history to the first time a human being ever saw a particular kind of thing, so at this time there exists no word for that object … and for argument’s sake, let’s just randomly select a horse as that object. Now, at this time what do we do? Well, we say “wow, look at that, I’ve never seen one of those before, I wonder what it is?” … and then when we discover no one else knows, because no one ever saw one before, we give it a name, and that name now refers to the object in question ( a horse ).

Now, let’s say that the people of this time come to believe the horse is a reptile or a machine, and so they use the word “horse” to mean a subclass or reptile or machine … does this mistake in any way reflect on the true nature of the horse? No, of course it doesn’t, in fact it is 100% entirely irrelevant to what a horse actually is, it has no bearing whatsoever, no matter how many people think otherwise, because reality isn’t a democracy.

In much the same way – assuming our debate friend is right about the historical usage – does this first usage define what capitalism is? No, not in the least … and why? Because capitalism already existed, all they were doing was naming something incorrectly, because they hadn’t given it enough thought ( and that’s the best case scenario where our benefit of the doubt to his argument is not misplaced, and he’s otherwise actually wrong about that too ).

The correct definition of capitalism MUST take into account the notions of generics, lexicographical composition, and redundancy.

So looking at the word itself what do we see?

Capitalism has a root word, capital … capitalism cannot exist without capital, and in the economic context, the most generic meaning of the root word capital is ( something like ):

A productive asset or resource.

Capitalism in its most generic sense – in order to encompass all possible past present and future synonyms of its semantic hierarchy of the economic context – MUST therefore mean ( something like ):
The exploitation of capital for the profit motive.

… because no other more contextually specific meanings – historically etymological in origin or otherwise – can fill that position of the root generic ( and thus all encompassing ) meaning of the semantic hierarchy.

From the object oriented perspective of computer science ( which comes from philosophical logic ), we would say that any productive asset, is therefore a capital asset, and the exploitation of that asset for profit, would be a functional expression of some subclass of the superclass of “capitalism”.

This we can have various political persuasions combined with the economic paradigm, and create subclasses of capitalism such as:

  • Democratic socialist capitalism
  • Free-market / corporatocracy capitalism
  • … or any other flavour that we like

… and in all cases we will be preserving the root meaning, and correctly differentiating between that which is actually predominantly political in nature, versus that which is the underlying economics of the social construct REGARDLESS of the political facade.

To say otherwise would cause or increase the probability of redundancy, misuse, and thus misunderstanding … therefore it would be extremely poor practice, and would be a poor decision by a “dictionary authority” to include in its written works.

In this respect, slavery IS an expression of capitalism, and not ( as capitalist apologists would argue ) a corruption or aberration of it … in fact you’d be hard pressed to find anything more capitalistic than slavery.


So … IF our debate friend was right ( or even roughly so ) about the origins of the usage of the word, all he has really identified is that nobody prior to that time had really given much thought to the nature of the underlying economic paradigm ( which arguably already existed ), and if we think about this a bit more deeply, we can actually see that this whole paradigm is merely a formalised evolution of the competitive survival motive of animal behavioural psychology ( ie – parasitism / predation ), but which is for that very reason a flawed ideology, because it does not favour or properly include cooperation and symbiosis.


I hope you have found this article to be entertaining, interesting, and informative … perhaps even useful … and that you see why I consider the topic important, particularly with respect to solving the reasons for arguments, disputes, misunderstandings, and our human differences of ideology and values … because ultimately everyone – except perhaps bigots, narcissists, psychopaths, and sociopaths – just want the same things:

  • To love and be loved
  • To be happy and fulfilled
  • To enjoy and explore life’s possibilities

We have an economic system which deprives many people of these things, and I suspect the core reason for this is because people misinterpret all sorts of information ( not just words ), and often they don’t even know they’re doing it … people mistakenly test things against their existing beliefs and values, but if there’s a flaw in those beliefs and values, then your tests will fail and you won’t know they failed …the consequence of which is that your future decisions ( based on those beliefs and values ) can hurt others, and you’ll sink further into delusion as you try to justify your increasingly abhorrent behaviour.

Capitalism is the epitome of this problem … a flawed ideology based on mistaken beliefs and values, based on turn on misinterpreted information, and a failure of imagination to grasp the alternatives and possibilities.

If we want peace in this world and abundance for all, we can only achieve that by removing and replacing capitalism, because I assure you – and this is not tested against my beliefs or values, it is tested against evidence and against principles of logic maths and science – capitalism is not broken, it is flawed … it can be made slightly less flawed, but it can never be “fixed”, because by the time you’ve removed all the flaws to create a different system, it is no longer definable as capitalism.

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