Nathanael Garrett Novosel, May 3 2023

How Meaning Can Change

One silly pet peeve of mine is how people start letters to people with, "Dear _____," at the top. Why do they do that? Because that's how they were taught to start letters. To them, it denotes the beginning of a letter where this is the person you are addressing. But, when you know the definition of the word "dear" in English, you know that it is a—pun not intended—term of endearment. You are regarding a person with affection when you say, "Dear Jessica," in your note. However, when writing a business letter, it is very strange to say, "Dear Mr. Wilson," when you don't even know the person. Yet people include "Dear", anyway, since that's how they know how to begin a letter. As soon as I realized this, I began addressing my e-mails and letters with, "Mr. Wilson," and dropped the "Dear" part. 

But the point of this blog post is not to get you to stop writing "Dear" in professional letters. Instead, my point is to demonstrate how meaning changes over time in a variety of ways. First, let me list those ways:

There are many reasons for this, such as:

Because going through all of this in detail would take too long, let's just go through a few examples and show how meaning can change so that you can either hold to the "true" meaning or be open to meaning changing as your perspectives change.

Examples of Meaning Changes or Differences

"in order to" – Example of a change in meaning

When people habituate the use of certain combinations of words, their meaning might change. In common English, people say, "In order to run a business effectively, one must..." and use "in order to" to mean "so that you may" or just a fancier way of saying "to"—i.e., "To run a business effectively..." Originally, the "in order" part was a way to say that you had to do something in a specific order so that a result would occur. "You must do this in order to achieve your goal." But people started saying, "in order to..." as a way of asserting that it was necessary to vs. just doing it in a specific order.

"Liberal" – Example of a different meaning to different people (and possibly a change in meaning)

When movements, groups, or philosophies are labeled with an overarching term, that term might change as the movement, group, or philosophy changes. "Liberal", "Conservative, "Democrat", "Republican", etc. are all examples of words that will change due to this. How meaning can change here is that a "Liberal" decades ago, such as John F. Kennedy, would be considered a "Conservative" today based on the values, laws, and policies he proposed if he were to hold the same exact stances. Because the world has changed, however, people on the left and right politically will claim that JFK would agree with their stances today because the left would argue that he would've evolved from the base that he set for modern policies and the right would argue that, if he held firm, he'd now be a conservative based on those values that they also hold today. So meaning evolves as the world changes.

But people will also disagree on what it means to be "Liberal", as some people would fall back on Classical Liberal principles and others would argue that they must adopt a lesser degree of Progressive values since they are on the same side of the political spectrum. So people will begin running into the "No True Scotsman" fallacy where they have in their mind an ideal view of what something should be and then measure everything else against it vs. trying to be more disciplined in definitions based on concrete, definable things in the real world. Or it could be that people took the label and changed what it stood for. These are all possibilities, meaning that the same word could represent many things to many different people.

"What it means to be human" – Example of a person's perspective changing over time

This one is where literal vs. the philosophical could cause a person to have very different perspectives over their lifetimes. Some people might start with the literal definition, such as "A human is a member of the homo sapien species, mammalia class, and animal kingdom..." and then evolve to feel that humans are beyond that and should include intangible things like a sense of wonder about the world, their creative abilities, and the thrill of romance. While the literal definition might be scientifically accurate, the more philosophical descriptions that people come up with might seem to be just as real and true to people as to what it means to be human. This kind of change can apply to what it means to be strong, smart, successful, loving, a good person, or any other concept that contains both objective aspects and subjective ones.

Examples of Causes of Meaning Changes

Now, there are many possible takeaways from these changes in meaning. You might be more careful in your communications to make sure that others understand what you mean vs. what words you use since they might misinterpret them. You might also find that, when teaching people a new idea, people who are new to something might take away the wrong message from how you, an experienced person trying to articulate the idea, might have intended it to be understood. Alternatively, you might position arguments differently to be more persuasive. You might question what someone else means vs. jumping to conclusions (or getting offended) since you know that you might not understand what the person is saying in the same way that they understand it. Finally, you might be careful when you are knowingly misleading someone or being misled by how an argument is worded or phrased. These are all ways in which differences and changes in meaning can affect you personally.

Do the best you can to truly understand and grasp things...and then to change your understanding as you gain new information and insights about the world around you. This can be difficult since you might have false beliefs that you refuse to change (because you don't know they're false) or you might be getting information that you cannot verify but might have to take people at their word because of the risk of being wrong or their authority or status in your community.

It's usually harmless for the meaning of words, ideas, or things to change for you. In fact, it can be beneficial if you find greater meaning by looking at things in a different way. But note when someone is changing the meaning of something deliberately to try to control your behavior or persuade you to your way of thinking without your knowledge that they're doing it. It's one thing to knowingly evolve as you experience more in life; it's another to be manipulated into something for others' gain at your expense. If you can get as accurate of definitions as you can for consistent meaning and then hold on to your subjective interpretation of what things mean to you in your life, you can balance what you have to agree upon with others to live peacefully and communicate effectively as part of society while living your best life and focusing on what matters to you in your life.

What things mean to you in this world will change; just make sure that it's always in a way that make your life and the lives of people you care about better.

Written by

Nathanael Garrett Novosel


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