I love words. I’m a little sick that way. I like to learn the nuances of their meanings and connotations. I enjoy learning etymology. English is a genuinely fascinating language once you get over its inelegance. (In the grand scheme of things, English looks at all other languages – their rules and structure, and says “IDGAF I do what I want,” and takes only the bits it likes to form a hodge-podge. Native English speakers then force the rest of the world to learn our strange language because we can’t be bothered to adhere to rules like all other languages).

To make matters worse, we are dreadful at teaching English to our children. I feel sure that I learned more about English grammar from French class than I ever did in any English class in the American public school system.

So not only do we have a confusing language, we don’t even learn to use it properly. This is how words like “literally” have come to mean their exact opposite, first in vernacular speech and then (devastatingly, for some of us) in the dictionary.

Now, I understand that language must evolve by basic necessity (much to the chagrin of institutions like the Académie française) but I must admit that I fear for the future when I see evidence that we are changing the meaning of words to reflect our poor educational standards, rather than focusing on the problems of widespread illiteracy.

I’m sure I do not speak perfect English, either. I use Grammarly to correct nearly everything I write. Some rules of language simply never sunk in.

What purpose does this rant have on a blog about compassionate debates?

The whole purpose of language is to communicate thoughts and ideas. When two people discussing a point of opposition have different definitions in their head for the words they are using, no mutual understanding is possible.

So Jane says “humility,” meaning “a lack of self-importance,” and Alice hears humility as “poor self-esteem; humiliation,” – if neither of them realizes that they are working with two different definitions of a word, Jane will think Alice is arrogant or self-centered, and Alice will think Jane is a doormat.

If you’ve ever taken the time to read a contract – even the privacy policy on any online service – you may have noticed that many terms are defined in their first usage. This is so that if an issue should go to court, both parties have the same definitions moving forward. It’s one of those features of legalese that drive many lay-people mad but is nevertheless crucial to ensuring both sides know what is being agreed on.

I have seen so many arguments that turned out to be wasted energy because there was no fundamental disagreement – only semantic ones.

It’s hard, but so important, to remember when talking with someone else, that the way they relate to language and people is unique to their own lived experience and may be wildly different from your own. Which does not inherently make either of you “right” or “wrong.” If you (me/we) can learn to be mindful of different definitions and contexts, we can communicate more effectively – which is the first step in reaching any kind of consensus.

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