Words and Meanings (a fragment)

[This is but a fragment of a full post.  I’m not quite sure where I’m going with it yet, but I wanted to get it out nevertheless.]

Words transmit meaning.  We often say that they “have” meaning, as if it’s an intrinsic part of their existence, but as we invent new meanings we, consequently, invent new words to transmit them or, sometimes, use existing words in new ways.

Consider the word computer.  For centuries it simply meant a person who could do mathematical calculations, especially when mathematics wasn’t readily available to the masses.  But, eventually we developed the concept of machines that could do these calculations for us.  And, I’m not even talking about the 20th Century yet; Charles Babbage came up with the idea of a mechanical calculator in the early 19th century.  Over 100 years later, Alan Turing (and others, but I like Turing best) began to conceptualize the ideas that became the modern digital computer.  Fast forward another few decades and it could be argued that we routinely hold the sum of all recorded human knowledge in our pockets on devices we regularly use.

We all have words we use to describe ourselves.  These words likely have personal meaning for each of us; a nuance that others may not ever–perhaps cannot–understand.  Beyond that personal meaning many words also have a narrowly accepted meaning, perhaps within a specific community that is understood by those within that community but harder for those outside.  And, finally:  a words generally understood meaning, i.e. (hopefully) understood by all those who use it.

The rub: these meanings can contradict and they compete for dominance.

The only way to differentiate between these meanings is to understand the context in which their words are used.  Online, where our context is so often made up of words, what we mean to say isn’t always what’s perceived.  Suddenly it’s not a single word competing for our attention but a flurry of them, each with their own competing, conflicting meaning.