The Meaning of “Is”


That is a question which will certainly live in infamy. How do you define a two letter word?

Then President Bill Clinton felt the need to ask exactly that when confronted with questions pertaining to his alleged affair with an intern. He apparently did not feel that it would be legally safe to answer that simple question without first having the inquisitor precisely define even the very simplest terms.

This may be viewed as either a political stunt or a careless blunder, but it would be wiser to explore it as a symptom of our modern day difficulty in communicating with one another.

So what, exactly, is the problem? It is a specific and rigid definition of words having gained a higher precedence than the meaning of the statement as a whole. One result is what some of us refer to as double-talk, and another is the capacity being realized for someone to claim we meant something other than what we did when making a statement.

An example of how deeply this problem has infiltrated out language and communications happened a few days ago when I was mildly chastised for using the word “understand” in a comment which I had entered. I was politely informed that the judicial system had assigned a very specific definition to that word, and that I would be better off not using it. While I appreciate the warning, and commend the intention of a complete stranger attempting to provide me with useful advice, the time has come for me to state my true opinion on this matter. I, quite frankly, do not give a rat’s ass what kind of convoluted linguistic tricks someone wants to use to change my meaning by redefining the words I choose to use. If one does not clearly understand my meaning, I have no objection to clarifying it, but I will not play semantic games with one who  has no better argument than to attempt to change my meaning by swapping definitions.

Back to the point. The doubletalk which we are daily subjected to is enabled almost exclusively by these multiple definitions. Those who do not wish to be held fully accountable for their words select those words which have many available definitions. In this way, if their words cause them later discomfort, they can usually escape by claiming a different set of definitions. Politics is a perfect example. Using this formula for their speeches, politicians can guarantee that their listeners will almost never be able to ascertain their true meaning, and they can seek to escape the consequences of unpopular speech much like a chameleon evades the predator.

The other problem which we are occasionally subjected to is that of being accused of saying something which we did not. Even if we say something with what appears to be indisputable clarity, such as using the word “is,” the unscrupulous will find a way to redefine our choice of words, and by so doing assign a completely different message than that which we wished to convey. This is an increasingly large problem in the legal and judicial systems, but it has also infected the rest of our lives in virtually all areas.

What is the solution to this problem? Mine should be obvious. I solve it by using the words which best suit my meaning at the time, and by largely viewing anyone who would insist on my use of any definitions not closely similar to those one would expect to find in any reputable dictionary which came off of the presses in the last 200 years or so as one who can not prevail in a debate by any other means.


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