Is this a dictionary?
Not really—it is a collection of definitions, but there are only a handful of words, 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 and interesting words, looking up the definition in the dictionary doesn’t help me understand it any better. “Marriage” is a great example, because dictionaries will often say that marriage is between spouses, but then you look up spouses and it refers back to marriage.
What qualifications do you have to write definitions?
That’s why I describe why I think a new definition works, how the process is for getting there, and what counterexamples I considered. I don’t want anyone to just take my word for it—I want you to truly find these arguments credible.
Read the articles on my site, 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 your thoughts.
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. There are good reasons to use a new definition for the words on this site, but ultimately it’ll depend on whether other people find those reasons compelling enough to make a change. Also, there’s two kinds of changes that would be necessary with a new definition:
- Having the word 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. So it’s 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 their products “flatbreads” even though, by this definition, it’s obviously pizza. That’s a more difficult change for people to make, and even though it seems like a reasonable and logical definition to me, it doesn’t mean it’s the only reasonable and logical definition 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 to agree upon or figure out.
Why are circular definitions bad?
Have you ever looked up a definition for a word and then found that you didn’t know what a word in the definition means either? So then 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. And that 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 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 find that it means “rational
One goal of this site is to never have a circular definition. The terms used in a definition should be basic concepts themselves, and none should rely on the original word in question.
What is ‘definitional density’?
This is an idea I’ve been thinking about that’s based on a lot of philosophical arguments regarding definitions and the way terms can modify them. For example, there are two ways to view a statement such as “Bats are flying mammals.”
- The person could be saying that there are mammals that can’t fly and ones that can, and bats are the latter.
- 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 believe the answer is “no,” because some things have very precise definitions, and others 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 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, and they’re made differently even though 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 an important characteristic changes for a muffin, it doesn’t end up with a new name, and it doesn’t become something else with a specific definition. So we just call it “a muffin with frosting,” which means the way we modify terms like “muffin” and “mammal” are very different.
Generally I’m going to try to avoid using the way words are modified as arguments for or against any particular definition. There are a two big reasons why:
- Depending on the definitional density of the word, modifiers can be used very differently, so there’s no consistent rule we can apply.
- Not everyone uses modifiers the same way, and it’s entirely possible to use them incorrectly. It’s even possible to completely contradict a definition by modifying it. If I called a bench an “immovable chair built for three people,” people would understand what I’m talking about, even if it’s clear that a bench is definitely not a kind of chair.