Do people have precise understandings of the words they use?

On the phrase "How are you?", traditions, mimesis, Chesterton's fence, and their relationships to the definitions of words.

Epistemic status
Boggling. I’m sure this is better explained somewhere in the philosophy of language but I can’t yet find it. Also, this post went in a direction I didn’t originally expect, and I decided it wasn’t worthwhile to polish and post on LessWrong main yet. If you recommend I clean this up and make it an official post, let me know.


One recurrent joke is that one person asks another how they are doing, and the other responds with an extended monologue about their embarrassing medical conditions.

A related comment on Reddit:

It's a running joke between ESL'ers that every one of them will respond with "I am fine thank you, AND YOU?" Regardless of nationality. The first thing taught in English.[0]

The point here is that “How are you”, as typically used, is obviously not a question in the conventional sense. To respond with a lengthy description would not just be unusual, it would be incorrect, in a similar way that you were asked, “What time is it”, and you responded “My anxiety levels increased 10% last week” would be incorrect. [1]

I think this is a commonly understood example of a much larger class of words and phrases we commonly use.

When new concept names are generated, I’d expect that they are generally done by taking a rough concept and and separately coming up with a reasonable name for it. The name is chosen and encouraged based on its convenience for its’ users, rather than precise correctness. I know many situations where this exactly happened (from history and practice of science engineering) and expect it’s the common outcome.

Some examples of phrases that don't mean the only possible sum of their parts
“Witch hunt”
“Netflix and chill”
“Cognitive Behavioral Therapy”
“Operations Research”
“Game Theory”
“Bayes’ Theorem”
“Free Software”

Arguably this is basically the same procedure that was used for single words repurposed to represent other unique things.

“Agent”
“Rational”
“Mass”.

Including many philosophical fields, with to-me ridiculously simple names: [“Determinism”, “Idealism”, “Materialism”, “Objectivism”][2]

Etymology explains the histories of many of these words & phrases, but I think leaves out much of the nuance.[3]


One real tricky bit comes when the originating naming is forgotten and the word or phrase is propagated without clear definitions. Predictably, these definitions would change over time and this could lead to some sticky scenarios. I’m sure that when humans started using the phrase “How are you?” it was meant as a legitimate question, but over time this shifted to have what is essentially a different definition (or wide set of definitions).

I’d bet that now, a lot of people wouldn’t give a very well reasoned answer to the question: ‘What does “How are you?” mean?’ They’re used to using it with an intent in mind and haven’t needed to investigate the underlying processes.

The same could be for many of our other words and phrases. Socrates was known for asking people to define terms like justice, self, and morality, and getting them pretty annoyed when they failed to produce precise answers that held up to his scrutiny.

“How are you?” may be interesting not because its’ definition has changed, but in particular because it did so without speakers recognizing what was going on. It shifted to something that may require comprehensive anthropological study to properly understand. Yet the phrase is commonly used anyway, the fact that it may be poorly understood by its’ users doesn’t seem to phase them. Perhaps this could really be seen under the lens of mimesis; most individuals weren’t consciously making well-understood decisions, but rather they were selecting from a very limited set of options, and choosing among them based on existing popularity and empirical reactions.[4]

I think we could call this a floating[5] definition. Floating definitions are used for different purposes and in different ways, normally without the speakers having a clear idea on their definitions.

Perhaps the most clear version of this kind of idea comes from traditions. No one I know really understands why Western cultures have specific traditions for Weddings, Holidays, Birthdays, and the like, or if these things would really be optimal for us if they were fully understood. But we still go along with them because the expected value seems good enough. These are essentially large “Chesterton's fences” that we go along with and try to feel good about.

My point here is just that in the same way many people don’t understand traditions, but go along with them, they also don’t really understand many words or phrases, but still go along with them.


[0] Reddit: Why is how are you a greeting
[1] One difference is that often the person asking the question wouldn’t quite be precisely aware of the distinction, so would often be more understanding of an incorrect response that details the answer to “how are you really doing.” A second difference is that they may think you honestly misunderstood them if you give them the wrong response.
[2] Imagined if various engineering fields tried naming themselves in similar ways. Although upon reflection, they were likely purposely not named like that in part to not get associated with things like philosophy.
[3] For example, etymology typically doesn’t seem to include things like defining the phrase “How are you”. Origin of “How are you?”
[4] See The Secrets of our Success, and JacobJacob’s post Unconsious Economics
[5] This is probably a poor name and could be improved. I’ve attempted to find better names but couldn’t yet.


Some of my random notes/links from investigating this topic: Folk taxonomy - Wikipedia Nomenclature - Wikipedia Proper noun - Wikipedia Common name - Wikipedia Skunked term - Wikipedia Jargon - Wikipedia A nominal definition is the definition explaining what a word means (i.e., which says what the "nominal essence" is), and is definition in the classical sense as given above. A real definition, by contrast, is one expressing the real nature or quid rei of the thing. Definition - Wikipedia Polysemy is the capacity for a sign (such as a word, phrase, or symbol) to have multiple meanings Semantic change - Wikipedia euphemism treadmill

2ozziegooen4moUpdate: After I wrote this shortform, I did more investigation in Pragmatics and realized most of this was better expressed there.

What's Pragmatics in this case?

ozziegooen's Shortform

by ozziegooen 31st Aug 2019127 comments