Meanings and Definitions

Everyone knows what a definition is. A definition is an effort to put down the meaning of a concrete or abstract object in the world in concrete terms, in order that there may be no confusion about what is meant when we use the word or symbol that stands for it. An ideal definition rigidly pins down the object it has to define, so that the definition becomes a single and unmistakable way to refer to, or find, or check your knowledge of the object concerned. A definition’s purpose is to remove all vagueness and all subjective aspects about the meaning of a term, and to put forward a most objective description, so that the meaning is the same for every last man, or maybe machine, that comes across it.

How concrete is this system really? If you think about it, there are some terms which we have accepted without definition. These are the basic words and phrases. Red. Sky. Ma. Papa. When you learnt them, you didn’t
need to know what they meant. At least, not through their definitions. Yet perhaps the words whose meanings are clearest to any person are these, the ones whose definitions they were never told while learning them. It isn’t possible, either. If I try to rigidly define red to you on the first day that I’m teaching you the word, and come up with something like:

‘R for red. Red stands for the physiological sensation generated in your eyes, and through your nerve cells, in your brain, when electromagnetic waves of wavelength 605 to 750 nanometres strike the retina.’

you’re going to throw a tantrum and I’ll lose my teaching job.

But this is exactly what red might be defined as. This may be the only kind of definition that is able to completely and flawlessly convey what is meant by the word red. This is finally what red means. If we ever send a capsule to the far reaches of space with the hope of making contact with intelligent alien civilizations and want to tell them what red means, this might be the definition we’d choose. Why, then, can’t I tell you this meaning when I’m introducing you to the word? Moreover, all children who have had a few elementary lessons on identifying colours with words know  the meaning of red. And I guess not many of them had to go through this definition.

The thought that comes up in answer to this question is that the word red is more readily identified with the colour itself. The mental impression of the colour is more real and immediate to us than the physiological and neurological processes behind its perception. Hence, it is much easier to just associate red with that familiar impression and accept that as a definition, although, in a logical and scientific sense, that is no definition or meaning at all. A person who thinks this way will hold that the true meaning of red is nothing but that mental impression or image of red. If he were in charge of that space capsule, he’d most likely pack something red in it rather than storing such a definition. He is right in a way, because when the aliens perceive that colour, they shall have a mental impression of it, and that impression will, according to this person, be the true meaning of the word red, and no words or definitions or analytic descriptions could ever explain red to them this way. This is because
red is primarily a mental affair. Its meaning lies much more in its immediate perception than in what it actually is. On the other hand, if the aliens cannot see, or they cannot see particularly the colour red, they won’t know what red means. You might think that sending them a definition would be advantageous in such a case, as it deals with the physical reality behind red rather than its psychological impression, but I (and not just I, many people) think that he’ll
still never know what red really is, because what we mean by the word is not a wave or a wavelength or an optical excitation or a nerve pulse. It’s none of those processes. What we mean is redness, the mental impression. Even
with a definition, without experiencing the colour red, those aliens will never be any closer to knowing what it is than a person who has the definition of red on his fingertips, but is blind from birth.

However, this definition of red has two drawbacks. An important question is that if the aliens have a different sort of sense that makes our red material appear to them in a way that is different from our appearance of red, will they be right in taking that impression as the meaning of red? One opinion would be that since the physical origin and cause of the redness is the same, it is still red, and their impression is just another way to see red. This way of thinking is objective: it associates the word red with the object, i.e. the physical phenomenon that produces those electromagnetic waves, rather than with the subject, i.e. the subject’s mental impression of it, which may vary. In any case, there is never any way to verify whether the subjective impression of any object on an other being is the same as yours. For all you know, someone might be seeing blue for red and red for blue all their life, and never even find out. There’s no way to find out.

This brings us to the second drawback. Most scientists, with their affinity for cool, sharp analytical logic, would hate. It’s fuzziness. By assigning the mental impression as the meaning of red rather than the rigidly definable physical process that causes it, we’re introducing a certain degree of fuzziness in the definition. The definition is not rigid and precise any more, and one might be thrown into doubt as to whether something he knows is red or not. This discomfort is understandable, but a counter-question would be: ‘You want the meaning to be the real unarguable physical phenomenon. How do you know that that’s real, that it’s indisputable? How do you know that the way that physical phenomenon appears to you is the only way it is capable of appearing? How do you know that your impression of this ‘concrete’ physical phenomenon behind red is not every bit as subjective and fuzzy as this other definition you’re trying to avoid?’

Readers of philosophy will by now start to think that this is no longer a discussion on definitions, but a philosophical debate on subjectivity and objectivity, a much discussed sphere in philosophy. True. This is not where
I wanted to get at. When I wrote down my thoughts in my diary, none of this was there. I guess it all came up because I started with the word red, which has a lot of implications in this sphere. I’ll try to get back on track now.

Anyway, so it is evident that while learning a language, the first words that we learn are supposed to be the simplest and most important, providing the initial platform on which we can stand while learning the rest of the language. We learn these words without definition. Also later, we find that we come across many words whose use cannot be completely be captured by a definition. We gradually understand these subtle nuances and various shades of meaning only through coming across those words repeatedly in different places and allowing the context in which it is used to add a little more character to its meaning.

Another most important aspect is one that is hinted at by the circular nature of definitions.

Many readers will already be acquainted with this concept, but I’ll explain for the sake of completeness. Let’s say that you’re completely alien to the English language, but, for the purposes of this discussion, you can read English words and pronounce them, and know how to use a dictionary. But you don’t know the meaning of any English words. Let’s say that you hear a certain English word somewhere and become very curious about what it means. You look it up in the dictionary, and all you find is a mass of other, equally incomprehensible words in its entry. You decide not to give up. You pick the first word in the definition and look that up in the same dictionary. You’ll find just another string of words in its entry. What do those mean? Well, the dictionary is supposed to tell you just that, isn’t it? So you try to look those up, and so on. This ends when, finally, you find that you’re coming up against definitions which involve the first word you wanted to look up. (we can logically conclude that more often the circle will complete at a more common word which is hard to get away from. If you start from its definition and follow the path of definitions, then after only about four or five definitions, you’re bound to come up against one that uses that word. Examples are a, to, of etc. It’s safe to assume that once you reach this section of your trail, there’s little chance you’ll be led back to your original word.) It is evident, then, that you’ve come a full circle and there’s nothing that this dictionary can give you any more. The following figure illustrates this scenario by starting with the word ‘offhand’:

Yet, the purpose of a dictionary was to let you know the meanings of most English words. You find that you’ve finished the entire dictionary, which few literate people have been able to do, and at the end of it, you don’t know the meaning of even a single word.

So what happened here? If the ultimate archive of English words could not teach you what even a single one of them means, what is the meaning of such a book? It surely does not contain the language then. At least, not all of it.
It’s missing some part of the language. Some very, very important part. So important, that without knowing it, you cannot know the meaning of a single English word even when you have a dictionary that contains 65,000.

What is this key information? Grammar? Nope. I give you a grammar book and you’re just as clueless about it. (You don’t even know what grammar means, remember?) Literature? Nope. You haven’t learnt the language yet, how can you read the literature? Well, what is it then? You find that all of the written accounts in and about English are insufficient to tell you even a tiny bit of this elusive part.

Maybe it’s spoken English? When you hear people talk, you can connect their words with words you’ve read (because you can read in the sense that you can spell words and pronounce them in your head), but as words they are pointless, because you don’t know what meanings they stand for. If you ask someone, he’ll just explain to you using a whole lot of other words, and it’ll be just like the dictionary again.

What is it, then, that these persons have and that you lack? What is this mysterious ingredient that no one would talk about or write about or give a damn about, or maybe not even consciously know about, but that is so fundamentally important to learning a language?

It’s the process that occurs when someone first learns a language, learns the first few words without definitions, learns and understands their meaning without the help of other words. Through gestures, through repetition, through instinct, through the mysterious but awfully helpful ‘common sense’ and learned reflex. For example, if every time you hear the sound ‘food’, it is followed by something in a dish that you can eat and that makes you happy, you’d instinctively look forward when someone says ‘food’ again. Unknowingly, you’ve learnt the true meaning of ‘food’. It is all the feelings associated with the anticipation, and the eating, and the contentment. All are your own thoughts and emotions and feelings that you can experience directly. Then it is a simple matter of association of the word with the entire clump of these feelings, this final impression as I called it before, and voila! You have started the process of learning a language. Other words follow similarly, and after reaching a certain stage, you can now be taught new words without the help of such association and instead with the help of your present stock of words, ones you’ve learnt through this process. These new definitions, since they are being put down in words, need to be specific, but in the process of interpreting them, you will surely reach the stage when you make the final link with the help of that initial understanding without definitions that you did once. And since it’s impossible to separate these base words (let’s call them that) from words that can be defined in terms of base words, a dictionary includes definitions of all words, even ones that are obviously never possible to learn for the first
time through their definitions. That’s not how the process of learning works. It’s, of course, a different matter if you’re a foreign student and you do learn basic words from a dictionary, but it’s only because your brain traces those words back to their counterparts in your own language. Then it follows the path through words in your own language, and the final click it makes is with that intuitive understanding. Coming back to ‘food’, you may come across the word ‘food’ in a dictionary much later in life, having lived a long time without knowing its definition but knowing full well its meaning, and when you read the definition then, what you’ll actually be doing is checking the definition against your understanding. How? Well, you’ll trace back the words comprising the definition to base words, and click click click. If these base words put together in this way give you a similar impression as the idea of the word food, you’re done.

It would be wrong, however, to suppose that a language is ruled by these ‘aboriginal’ base words and that others are there just to refer to them. When a new word is learnt, it is learnt through reference to your base words, and its meaning comes to you as a specific combination of the meanings of the base words. But after repeated use, that final meaning gets more strongly attached to that word itself, and it needs no reference any more. Sometimes we come to realize that the final meaning is slightly different from the combination of meanings that the definition provided (it is often so — that’s why a new word was created in the first place, to capture that particular nuance.) In short, it becomes a base word itself. This happens fairly quickly for average people: you don’t need to look up a dictionary more than once for a new word (in some cases twice, maybe thrice, but not more).

So it can be said that language is, in fact, constructed by this primitive and very important understanding without definition. It is at the heart of learning a language. And since it involves no strict definitions and all happens through a process of thinking, imagining or association in your head, you cannot really call these initial impressions definitions, since there’s a note of rigidity, finality and strictness, an objective air associated with the meaning of definition. These initial ideas are, however, flexible. They are moulded by you and bent by you and changed by you. It’s not a definition that can be written or said. It can only be felt. In short, it’s fuzzy.

But in light of our discussion, we can now conclude that however fat be your dictionary and however large may be the number of definitions in it, the language finally rests on something that is not definition, and definitely not very much defined itself. A language is a huge pyramid floating on a layer of fuzzy air. A definition can then, at best, be called a refusal to admit an immediate fuzziness and to transfer it from the word to be defined onto the shoulders of its neighbours. Sooner or later, you’ll come up against that half-real void that acts as the interface between the words and your understanding. The concrete and rigid idea that a definition was supposed to have given you finally ends with a dependence on interpretation, a subjective aspect, the same fuzziness it was built to avoid.

A thought that occurs is: if there’s a certain concept that is more readily visualized or conjured immediately in the head, and any attempt to define it is either inadequate or makes things more complicated, is there any reason behind defining it? Couldn’t we just give that idea a name and let that word stand without definition? We sure can, provided everyone else conjures up the same image and understands the same thing by that word. If you could make some arrangement to ensure that, you can have a new word. There is justification for this — the same reason that justifies the creation of new words in a language. However, don’t expect your new word to remain undefined for long. It’s impossible. It needs to be defined sooner or later because there might be people who don’t have that instinctive understanding of the word, there might be foreign people learning that word for the first time in this language, and there is of course the need to stock dictionaries with every last word that comes up. A few new words have come up recently, a lot of them from the technological arena. Among them are ‘egosurfing’: looking up your name on Google, and ‘cocacolization’, meaning globalization. After repeated use, the meanings of oft-used new words will come to be implied and they will become base words.

Until now, I’ve spoken against the need of definitions. However, it is obvious that we can’t do without them. I’ll end with a few arguments in support of it.

The strongest of these arguments in favour of definitions is that, although a definition cannot finally be as rigid as it claims to be, it does introduce certain specifications and constraints in the interpretation of a word. Even if the ideas contained in the words in the definition are not adequate to define a word completely, they may at least readily help in clearly marking out certain things. Thus definitions are especially useful in scientific and technical literature, not least because the ideas in these spheres lend themselves poorly to instinctive understanding. This is because some of them are not single ideas in the first place, and are nothing but a list of specifications and restrictions, exactly what definitions are adept at.

Secondly, as I said, a definition rules out the possibility, if there be any, of different people interpreting a single word differently because they might instinctively know it to be something else than what you want them to understand.

Also, it seems irritating to work on a thing and not have a rigid definition for it, whether it be more or less immediate than the idea itself.

Yet, as we have seen, a definition is not final or ultimate. It is unable to be these things, however strict or rigid it may appear to be. Its meaning and interpretation finally rests on a very subjective aspect, a fuzziness that is unique to everyone.


9 thoughts on “Meanings and Definitions

  1. Before reading I had to say that this thing was troubling me for a very long time and is something I was planning to deal with too. I guess am definitely going to like this.


  2. i guess everyone has pondered over this sometime or other – but definitely a good job of putting it on paper. nice! however i feel that since we learn by association, and that we acquire the inherent meanings of words not by definitions but by their occurrences in written or spoken sentences – and thus we end up with the same impression of the terms as everyone. (of course each one may experience those terms with our own subjectivity – but we do still end up with a mapping of real world objects to our private definitions). Hence we call the same colour red – independent of the experience we feel of it.Definitions, thus, form the first step in the scheme of learning by association.


  3. Interesting article. You seem to have attempted to explore an entire wing of the discipline of Cognitive Science in one single article. (I’m assuming you’re familiar with Cognitive Science) I wonder what your thoughts are on pragmatics and its relation with semantics (which is what you have dealt with here) and on the cognitive paradigm of learning by instances – courtesy the Bayesian Model of Cognition and the Discursive Model of Cognition?



    1. Hello Sahon. I am glad you liked my article and I’m rather flattered that a person like you has thought it to be interesting. Do you really know Ido, Sanskrit, Latin and French? I tried to learn Esperanto once but only went so far as Saluton, mie estas… 🙂
      Sorry, but I don’t have any idea about any of the fields you mentioned. This post, like other such ones, are the product of aimless wanderings of my thought. I just wanted to give a lot of jumbled ideas some structure, and writing it out was a way to do that.
      Thanks for your comment!


      1. sahishnu

        Hello Abhra.

        Thank you for the compliment. However, knowing a language and speaking a language are different things. I am an interdisciplinary researcher in Cognitive Science and since the study of cognition bears strong relations to Linguistics, I am required to maintain a certain degree of familiarity with them. My interest in the ancient languages are merely scientific in nature and not for communication, you see. I study how they have influenced thought and knowledge over the ages.

        You might want to look up on the fields I mentioned. I have a feeling you might find them fascinating. Assuming, of course, that your interest in this is still as strong as it was when this article was written. Just a thought.. 🙂



        1. Thankfully, my interest in languages in their role of guiding the course of human culture and thought, and being reciprocally changed itself to preserve and reflect that evolution, remains unabated. Thanks for mentioning the fields; I’ll surely look them up.


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