Friday, November 7, 2008

Definitions and connotations: Why we need to remember that a word has both

A long, long time ago, in a blog far, far away, I took my first foray into participating into the blogosphere via commenting. Being my first comment ever, it wasn't overly good. In fact, it was roundly criticized by pretty much everyone. Here it is, in all its not-so-glorious glory:

Buddhists aren't precisely atheist, from what I recall they believe in reincarnation and the soul. They made not believe in any god, but supernatural souls and reincarnation aren't exactly atheistic things.


You can probably see why it was criticized. Atheism, of course, is just the lack of belief in a god or gods. The problem with this post is that I was thinking in terms of connotation (defined as the associated or secondary meaning of a word or expression in addition to its explicit or primary meaning; I'll note that connotations are generally ambiguous. Depending on usage, the word homosexual could have any number of connotations. Those, of course, are generally shown by tone of voice, not something we can easily get online.) rather than definition (defined as the formal statement of the meaning or significance of a word, phrase, etc.) Connotations, unlike definitions, are ambiguous. In science, to be as specific as possible, we should use the definition as often as possible to get the point across with a minimum of misunderstandings.
However, lay people not only don't often understand the difference between connotation and definition, but are perfectly capable of using the connotations of words in a scientific discussion. So scientists, to communicate well with laypeople, must be able to remember the definition and the connotation. At the time I posted that, I was basically a layperson, if a slightly more educated on science one. In fact, I'm still just a well-educated layperson, but I've learned that in scientific discussions, or any other discussion where clarity is required (for an example of why a definition might be required in a religious discussion, go talk to BD about defining God; he had a very annoying troll who refused to define God and kept trying to talk about Richard Dawkins for some reason), we should not use the connotations of words, only definitions.
We need to understand two things about definitions and connotations: First that we should try to stick to definitions for most scientific or religious discussions, and second that other people might not realize that the discussion needs to be well defined. They might use connotations anyway. So some people might be confused when we tell them they don't understand the definition of a word.
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Welcome, those directed here yet again by the whims of the Circle! Any constructive criticism, praise, random comments, etc are all welcomed.

13 comments:

Bronze Dog said...

Minor tweak: Need to fix the link to my place.

King of Ferrets said...

It be fixed.

Anonymous said...

You might be confusing agnosticism with atheism. Atheists usually "believe" that there are no gods. So it's still some kind of religious belief. Being indifferent to the possibility of an existance of god-like entities is better descriped as agnostic.

King of Ferrets said...

Atheism isn't usually an active belief. The opponent can't show us any good evidence of God, the universe doesn't need God, so we use Occam's Razor and eliminate him as an explanation until he has some evidence.

Akusai said...

Agreed. Atheism is simply the lack of a belief in a deity. No more, no less.

kamagra said...

I agree with this because the word homosexual could have any number of connotations, actually that's something psychological because it depends what every person believe a bout it.m10m

generic viagra said...

Very good post, I think that you are absolutely right, there is a little of confusion with this.

sophie said...

True, each word has a definition and it is a totally different thing when we say connotation. :-)

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Don said...

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