Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Semantics

I like words. I like being precise with words, too.

Sometimes people have accused me of parsing too finely to the point where a clarification I think is important is reduced to “semantics.” I don't like that word, especially when it's used that way.

Here's the way I see it. If a difference in language represents a difference in meaning, then the language difference is more than just a semantic difference, but is a meaningful important difference. If the meaning doesn't change at all, then sure, it's just semantics. A couple examples:

If we're talking about the difference between “nation” and “country,” then without knowing much of the etymological history, they seem like interchangeable words for the same thing. Perhaps one may be a better poetic or prose fit than the other, but I don't know of a meaningful difference between the two. Maybe some would see an urban vs. rural differentiation between them, but I see that distinction made far more often using other words.

If we're talking about the difference between “international” and “global,” then yes, I see a meaningful difference between the two. To one of those terms, national borders are significant, and to the other, national borders are invisible or insignificant. Maybe a global organization recognizes international boundaries, but it doesn't do that by using the word “global.”

In terms of how this can affect relationships, sometimes one person sees or wants to make a distinction, and they choose words to make such clarifications. If even after using specific words to communicate a distinction another person doesn't see the difference, then there are a couple choices available.

The disrespectful prideful option is to dismiss the other person and their efforts to make a point as nothing more than “semantics.” One may succeed in both alleviating temporary discomfort and inflicting lasting damage on the relationship. If the goal is to shut down the conversation or the relationship, “semantics” is a useful word for that.

The respectful humble option is to confess an inability to see the difference and ask for either further clarification or patience in their lack of understanding. One can trust the other person that their point is important (even if not yet to anyone other than themselves), and persist in seeking to understand, or showing brotherly love to the person anyway.

Which choice do you make?

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