A brood comb

….philosophical and other notes….

Setting Aside Certain Types of Change Of Meaning

Posted by Tanas Gjorgoski on June 19, 2007

I think when we talk about change of the meaning of the words, we need to differentiate two things. One is change that comes from knowledge about the correct use of the word, and the other is change of meaning that might come from the knowledge about whatever it is to which the word refers.

If two people don’t mean the same thing by the word because of misunderstanding of what the word is supposed to mean.

  • If one of the parties in semantical disagreement is taken to be expert on what the word is supposed to mean, the disagreement is resolved by the expert correcting the wrong usage of the word of the other party. Such is the case I think with the children and their usage of words described in the previous post. The children being aware just that the things can show gestalt perceptual similarity, don’t have anything else to connect the word to. So to say, because they aren’t (at that time) aware of any other kinds of similarity between the things, they do their best with what they are aware of. But in this case adults are taken to be expert of the usage of the words, and through the years by explaining, pointing, describing children become aware of other kinds of similarities, and connected to that can correct their use of words. We can say that what is changing here is both the knowledge about the world, which  opens possibility for learning the correct use of the word.
  • If none of the two parties considers the other one (or others) as an expert, either they will be pragmatic or they will end up fighting.

As Richard pointed in the comments of last post, if people can mean different things by the same word is not an issue. I acknowledge that point, and I think that nobody has (or should have) problem with change of meaning of words which is motivated by learning or by pragmatic decision about use of words, and which (I think) would cover the cases that appear in cognitive development.

So to make the issue which I raised in previous posts more specific – it is not just if there is possibility of change of meaning of the words, but if a change of the meaning of the word can happen among the competent users of the word, which are in same time also experts about what the word refers to.


4 Responses to “Setting Aside Certain Types of Change Of Meaning”

  1. I don’t think that the meaning of the word changes when people use it in an odd way…the dictionary is the ultimate expert in semantical disagreements, and when there is one, normal language users consult it to settle the dispute.

  2. I agree, I just wanted to put aside change of what one means by a word in cases of being corrected by others, or by peeking in the dictionary.

  3. N. N. said


    If “an odd way” is “a way different than the (present) dictionary definition,” then the meaning of a word most certainly does change when people use it in an odd way.

    The lexicographer is an empirical scientist. He reports the norms of usage. Accordingly, a dictionary is authoritative in the same sense as common usage is authoritative. Over the course of time, common usage can and often does change. As a result, the definitions of the dictionary change.

  4. N.N.

    No it doesn’t…notice how you change from talking about what I was in the first paragraph (a person uses a word in a non-standard way on one occasion) to talking about ‘common usuage’ in the second paragraph…so I agree with you that the dictionary tracks common usage (or intention, or something) but the point is that a change in meaning is a gradual slow process…it is not somthing that happens when a five year old learns that German Shepards and shitzu’s are both dogs.

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