Is this a dictionary?
Not really, it is a collection of definitions, but there’s only a few of them and I go into much more detail about each one than a dictionary would.
Why do we need more definitions?
For most words there’s no need for another definition, the existing definitions do their job very well. But I’ve found that for some more complicated words looking up the definition in the dictionary didn’t help me understand it any better. The definition of marriage is a great example of this because it’ll often say that marriage is between spouses, but if you look up spouses, it references marriage.
What qualifications do you have to write definitions?
That’s why I go into a lot of detail about why I think a new definition works, my process for getting there and the counterexamples I considered. I don’t want anyone to just trust me or take my word for it that these are good definitions. Read the article and I hope you’ll be convinced that the new definition is an improvement. If you’re not convinced, drop me a line, I’d love to hear why not.
Should I start using these definitions?
Using a definition is a tricky thing, it’s OK for me to use a new definition for a word, but I also have to let other people know what I mean when I use it. So it’s really dependent on other people accepting the new definition. I think that there’s good reasons to use a new definition for the words on this site, but ultimately it’ll depend on if other people find those reasons compelling enough to make a change. Also, there’s two kinds of changes that could be required with a new definition:
- Using the word to apply to the same things, but with a different understanding of what it means. For example, defining chair as “a seat designed for one person, to be movable and provide support” will mean that all the things we used to call chairs will still be called chairs. The label and the things stay the same, it’s just the reasoning connecting them that’s changed. Which is a change, but it’s a pretty easy change to make.
- Using the word to apply to different things. For example, if we start to define the difference between pizza and flatbread as being that pizza is made with dough and flatbread is made with precooked dough, then we’re going to have to make some bigger changes. There are places that call what they make flatbreads even though by this definition it’s obviously pizza. That’s a more difficult change for people to make, and even though I think this seems like a reasonable and logical definition it doesn’t mean it’s the only reasonable and logical definition that’s possible. Ultimately whatever definition makes it easiest to communicate will probably win out in the long term, but that could take a very long time.
Why are circular definitions bad?
Have you ever looked up a definition, and then didn’t know exactly what some word in the definition meant either? So you looked up that word too? Sometimes, especially with the complicated ideas we’re looking at here, following a chain of definitions will bring you back to the original. Which means that you’ve never found the meaning you were hoping to find, besides discovering that all those words have something to do with each other. Here’s a quick hypothetical example:
- You look up the definition of “rational” and it says that it means “reasonable”
- You look up “reasonable” and it’s defined as “being logical”
- When you look up “logical” you get that it means being “rational”
One goal of this site is to never have a circular definition. The terms used in a definition should already be relatively well defined and easy to understand themselves, and none of them should rely on the word being defined in anyway.
What is ‘definitional density’?
This is an idea I’ve been thinking about based on a lot of philosophical arguments about definitions that are based on the way terms are modified. For example there’s two ways to view a statement like “bats are a flying mammal.”
- The person could be saying that there are mammals that can’t fly and ones that can, and bats are the later
- Or they could be saying mammals can’t fly, but a bat is something just like a mammal that can fly
In this case, the first is clearly correct, but is that always the case? I don’t think so, and the reason why is that some types of things have lots of very precise definitions, and other types have very few and very broad definitions. Animals are very clearly defined, or we could say that they have a high definitional density. Every animal is part of a class, an order, a genus and a species. So any variation from one kind of animal to another can be accurately described with some terms that have very precise definitions, but not everything is like this.
Foods don’t seem to have very high definitional density. For example, muffins and cupcakes are different things, muffins are small quick breads and cupcakes are small cakes, they’re made differently even if they have very similar ingredients. What would we call a muffin with frosting? There’s no specific word for a “dessert muffin”, unlike animals when some important characteristic changes for a muffin it doesn’t end up with a new name, it doesn’t become anything else with a specific definition. So we just call it “a muffin with frosting”, which means the way we modify terms like muffin and terms like mammal can be very different.
Generally I’m going to try and avoid using the way words can be modified as arguments for or against any particular definition. There’s a few two big reasons why:
- Depending on the definitional density of type of thing modifiers can be used very differently, so there’s no good consistent rule we can apply
- Not everyone uses modifiers the same way, and it’s entirely possible to them in an incorrect way. It’s even possible to completely contradict a definition by modifying it. If I called a bench an “unmovable chair built for three people” people would understand what I’m talking about even if it was clear that a bench is definitely not a kind of chair.