Terminology and Semantics

Terminology and semantics matter, folks. There’s no two ways about it.

I should first point out that my formal higher education is in the field of speech/human communication, so I spent far too many years studying words, their use, their meaning. And how did I put my degree to use? by becoming a software engineer (hobby turned career)… but at least because of my degree I’m a geek with social skills. 😉

Xavier’s post on move to live is a good one on the topic and I’m fortunate to have a range near my house where I can practice such things. But that’s not the topic of this article. In Xavier’s post is a video and there’s something in the video that tripped a peeve of mine. As you watch the video, eventually scroll by and it lists the guns used as “a .22 auto… a 9mm compact auto”. Now, I know what he’s talking about, but I also know he’s incorrect in his terminology. What he actually used were “semi-automatic” pistols, not “automatic” pistols. Of course what confuses it further is that the term “auto-loading” can also be used interchangeably with “semi-automatic”. 

Then there’s the old “clip” vs. “magazine”.

I’ve heard these and many other mistaken uses of terms. It’s a problem because the meaning of words is not something intrinsic to the words themselves. The meaning of a word is attributed to the word by the person using the word. When my younger son was a toddler he used to refer to his favorite tv cartoon character as “Pop-a-gee” (we have no idea where it came from). One day we were out and about, and when we were entering a building a couple were leaving the building. As we crossed in the doorway my son points to the cartoon character on the lady’s shirt and loudly exclaims “Pop-a-gee!!”. The lady stops and gives my son a puzzled look, and then we explain to her that’s his word for Spongebob Squarepants. “Pop-a-gee” was my son’s own term, and to that term he attributed the meaning of his favorite absorbent,  yellow, and porous cartoon character that lives under the sea. Around our household we all know the term, we know what it means, and we still use it to this day to refer to Spongebob. But we can only use the term with each other because no one else knows what it means (well, until I posted about it here); that lady in the doorway had no idea what the term meant until we explained it (not intrinsic). This is where standardization comes in (see: dictionary).

Standardization is important because it’s what enables us to work together and understand each other. If everyone had their own term for that cartoon character would we ever know when it’s on tv to tune in? would we be able to talk with each other about his latest hilarious antics? Well, we could, but the conversation would likely fail. So instead, we all have agreed that the term “Spongebob” has a meaning of that particular cartoon character. With that standardized and shared definition of the term, now we can engage in conversation that has a higher chance of success in conveying our intended message to our audience.

What communication is about is that: conveying ideas, sending messages. I have an idea, I have a message that I wish to send to you, so I must do my best to ensure that you will receive the message that I intend to send. If I posted all about “Pop-a-gee” and went on and on about him here in my blog, until now you’d have no idea what I was talking about. But consider my audience. If I was just talking to my wife and kids, I’d probably say “Pop-a-gee”, and I’d probably walk into the living room to talk with them about it. But I’m talking to the world at large, so I need to use “Spongebob” and post to my blog. In the end, the message I wish to send is the same, but I have to take a different approach in how I formulate and send that message: what words I use, the tone, the medium. We often forget this.

So when we talk to people about “automatic handguns”, we have to be careful. If you are talking about a Glock 18, that is a handgun capable of fully automatic fire, i.e. one press of the trigger will fire a round, cycle the action, fire another round, cycle the action, and continue in this manner until either the trigger is released or ammunition runs out. But the handguns most people are referring to when they (mis)use the term “automatic handgun” are actually semi-automatic, i.e. one press of the trigger fires one round, cycles the action, and then everything stops; to fire again you must pull the trigger again. 

Why is this important? Well, not only does it ensure when we’re talking to each other that we’re accurately conveying the message we’re attempting to send, but it also works to ensure misconceptions and misinformation are not perpetuated. For the hoplophobes or merely the uneducated or misinformed, the more we use correct terms the more we can ensure a proper dissemination of information. People hear “automatic” and they think about “machine guns”, spraying lead walls of death into schoolyards, by the military, or by nutjob rednecks. Why? Well, maybe you know what you mean when you used that term, but again, meaning is not intrinsic to the word, meaning in this case comes from the person hearing the word. So when we use our own terms or choose the wrong term, we’re going to decrease our chances of successfully conveying our message. To increase chances of success, use the correct term with the established meaning. And what is that established meaning? Again, consider your audience to best determine it (e.g. I speak with a different set of terms when I talk to my Mom about computers than when I talk to my programmer geek buddies).

But of course, we have to remember that in politics, it’s all about the message and meaning you want to convey. If we call it a stimulus, it sounds good and we’ll want it… who in their right mind wouldn’t want to be stimulated! If we call it a heaping pile of pig shit, people won’t want that. It’s the same thing, just different terms, just different ways to use the established meanings to serve your political ends. This is why “assault weapon” is such a powerful term, because of the standard meanings of the words “assault” and “weapon” and now put them together and an even greater emotional response can be elicited. If instead you called it a “sporting rifle”, a different emotional response is had. They’re both talking about AR-15’s. And frankly, the 30 round magazines for those AR-15’s are just “standard capacity magazines”… 10 rounders? those are “reduced capacity”.

Terminology and semantics matter.

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