A word is a way to point at a concept.
Let’s say you want to communicate the concept of a cat. You can say ‘cat’, say ‘meow’, write ‘cat’, draw a cat, or point at cats with your finger. These are different ways to point at the concept cat. Technically speaking, you could use any string of letters to label that concept. ‘Braufani’, ‘katze’, ‘eztak’, or even ‘dog’. Still, there are good reasons why you can’t just define words however you like:
- Words have communicative consequences. They allow you to make yourself understandable to others. Not, however, if you arbitrarily change definitions. This point is trivial, so let’s move on.
- Words have cognitive consequences. They are embedded in a complex web of associations, and any node you change in the net alters a myriad of connections. This is why people can gain emotional relief from reframing their ‘anxiety’ as ‘excitement’ or their ‘hardships’ as ‘challenges’, why you can boost a team’s morale by giving it a cool team name, and why we understand and memorize ideas differently depending on the words used to express them.
- Words have cultural consequences. They carry connotations and can thus be used as weapons in marketing, politics, and metapolitics. This is why food labels follow diet trends, why politicians speak the way they do, why the scope of words like ‘nazi’, ‘sexist’, and ‘x-ophobe’ lend themselves to lavish expansion, and why propaganda works.
So even though quarrels about words might seem idle from a technical perspective, the receptive gesture of submitting to someone’s idiosyncratic use or curious redefinition of a word is not always wise. At times the better choice is to demand correct usage or to discard the word altogether and precisely describe the concept itself—substance over symbolism.