Okay, I know that you may already know this, but, it needs to be said: words matter. I don’t mean in the sense that “words can hurt our feelings,” or in terms of the inherent power of the spoken, or written, word – although, those are true statements. I’m talking about the meaning of the word that you’ve chosen to use – and the significance of making sure that the person with whom you are communicating understands the meaning of the word that you’re using – as you are defining it.
If that entire concept sounds like semantics, that’s because it is. The word semantics is defined as “the meaning of a word.” We’ve been very misguided in our dismissal of the significance of this task – and recently, a great example presented itself. You may have heard, recently, that scientists discovered a new organ! For now, I’ll ignore the fact that we still understand so very little of our bodies, earth, solar system, universe, etc., that there was an “organ,” that is so pervasive that it exists in a significant portion of the human body (a post for another day, I suppose). Let’s just focus on the fact that it might not actually be an organ (hence the quotation marks around the word organ, above). You see, the thing is, “no two anatomists will agree on a list of organs in the body,” according to Paul Neumann, a professor of medicine at Dalhousie University in Canada and member of the Federative International Programme for Anatomical Terminology. If you’re anything like me, you respond to that statement with incredulity and a solid, “beg your pardon,” or even a disbelieving, “come again. now?” How is it possible that anatomists cannot agree on how many organs are in the human body – a number which is debatably as high as 79 or 80 (yes, you read that right – they contend that there are as many as 79 or 80 organs in the human body)? Well, the answer to that is the easiest part of this story to explain. They can’t agree on the number of organs, because there is no agreed upon definition for the word “organ,” except in terms of the musical instrument.
The real kicker is that it doesn’t actually matter whether you call it an organ or not. Are your organs the most important part of your body? That depends on who you ask as well. To the person that has failing organs, I suppose they’d answer, “yes.” However, to the person battling an autoimmune disease that causes their white blood cells to attack their platelets (a condition called “I.T.P.”), the fact that neither the white blood cells, nor the platelets are defined as “organs,” is of no consequence at all. Therefore, the new discovery of some aspect of our human anatomy is significant, irrespective of the label given to that discovery.
You might think, well, that’s all great, but, I don’t discover organs, so why are you bothering me? You’re obviously right: you don’t discover organs. On the other hand, your work is significantly more important than discovering organs. You’re educating someone that has the chance to be taught the lessons that are completely missed in the traditional educational setting. Someone who will soon go out into the world – and, by virtue of the fact that you educated them, and are the type of person that is still reading this blog post, they will likely be the sort of person that succeeds and has a significant impact on the world around them. Someone that has the ability to be the voice of reason in a society that has forgotten – or in some cases, never learned, how to reason. Our social and political divisions come down to a handful of ideological differences. However, the chasm that most of society has come to believe exist between ourselves and those that possess opinions which differ from our own, is related to an even smaller number of root causes. Among them, the failure to define our words, and the failure to define the meaning of someone else’s words.
Aside from being able to communicate better with everyone around us, the decision to carefully and deliberately define our words has the potential to determine whether our kids end up learning the lessons that we are trying to teach them, or, end up heeding the advice that they mistakenly believe that we were trying to give them, only to end up way off the mark, and incredibly frustrated.
Jeffrey Hoffmann, Esq., Founder – RealSchooling.com & RealSchooling.blog