The key to our communications with each other are words. Words can come from many languages. They can also have a lot of different meanings.
You might think there isn’t a lot of variation in the meanings, but there are words with hundreds of definitions. The word “set” has 464 definitions in the Oxford Dictionary. There are many words with hundreds of definitions.
In fact, there are words that have opposite definitions. The word ‘dust’ can mean to put a layer of dust on something. It can also mean removing a layer of dust.
Concrete and Abstract Words
Concrete words are those that have a real object associated with them. Words like dog, cat, tree. There might be a lot of variation, but the general characteristics are understood.
Abstract words are those naming concepts, things that don’t have a physical existence. Words like truth, justice, democracy.
Admittedly, many concrete words have definitions that include abstract concepts. You can feel blue, a situation may be called gold. In these situations emotional qualities have been associated with some characteristic of the object
Context Is Key
Normally the context will let us know what the intended meaning is, but not always.
Sometimes, all meanings have relevance, even the opposites. The key to understanding a statement is to know what the person saying it means.
This makes critical thinking much more difficult, but of the utmost importance.
Choosing the Right Definition
Do we even know the definitions? Is the definition that we choose the same one the speaker means? Is the speaker aware of different interpretations? Is the speaker trying to confuse the issue by using words with fuzzy meanings?
If we are hearing something in person, we can ask. If it’s second hand or written, we don’t have that option.
Color My Words With Emotion
Another problem with words is they can change meaning according to the tone of voice and how they are emphasized. They can also be emphasized to make us subconsciously assume one meaning when the structure of the sentence implies something different.
Words, quite often, get charged with emotions and then the meanings are biased.
With proper emphasis, our minds will assign a totally wrong meaning to a word without even realizing it. This is used all too often in propaganda and selling propositions. It is the unscrupulous side of rhetoric and persuasive speaking.