A General Observation

The Internet does seem to be full of people whose knowledge of complex concepts appears limited to a dictionary definition.

Some of them seem to be proud of that.

50 Comments on “A General Observation”

  1. Too true, ‘cept I’d replace the word “Internet” with “world” …and sometimes people don’t even bother with the dictionary definition.

  2. What I have sometimes noticed is people whose knowledge is limited to one dictionary definition, even when the very dictionary they are citing gives several.

  3. general (noun): a commissioned officer in the army, air force, or marine corps who ranks above a lieutenant general and whose insignia is four stars.

    I don’t understand. Did a general make this observation?

  4. The dictionary spells intelligence. This is where most people know the word from.

    It would be natural to assume that people strive to sound like dictionaries. Plus big words are always sweetest.

  5. The world is full of people who are full of all kinds of interesting stuff. But without specifics I can’t have much of an opinion. Even with specifics most people don’t think I have much of an opinion anyway so what the heck.
    I do have an opinion on a particular Pride. Racial pride. Why be proud of something you had nothing to do with?

  6. @snowcrash

    Thanks for the link. Best line :

    The host added, “But your critics say it is a tax increase.”

    Obama replied, “My critics say everything is a tax increase.”

  7. Probably, generally speaking, it does help to establish, at the beginning of a discussion, a common agreement on the meanings of the key words & phrases that are going to be used.

    Sometimes a discussion will, rewardingly, be continued even beyond that — but not very often. *sigh*

  8. “The web is full of people who became experts five minutes after they read your post.”

  9. Dictionary definitions are useful in context of discussions, because they provide a common ground instead of letting the participants just assume that everybody else is talking about the same thing as they are.

    Case in point: a discussion about “free will”. If you don’t define it at the beginning of the debate, you might have one person who defines it as “feeling that one has control over the outcomes of some events” and another who defines it as “having control over the outcomes of events”, or some such other mess, and lots of time will be wasted on arguing past each other.

    Semantics is frustrating, but important.

  10. For an amusing example, go to alt.fan.tolkien and google for “trotsky cleave” There’s no particular shame in not being familar with the secondary meaning of “cleave,” but abusing the people who tell you otherwise is a significant fail.

  11. “I would have every one write what he knows, and as much as he knows, but no more; and that not in this only but in all other subjects; for such a person may have some particular knowledge and experience of the nature of such a river, or such a fountain, who, as to other things, knows no more than what everybody does, and yet to give a currency to his little pittance of learning, will undertake to write the whole body of physics: a vice from which great inconveniences derive their original.”

    – Michel de Montaigne 1533-1592 (Translated by Charles Cotton)

    It’s amazing how little man has changed in 400 years.

  12. “Are there other words, that at least in some context, are their own opposite?”

    My favorite example is trim, which can either mean removing things from or adding things onto. You can even use both meanings in the context of trees, depending on whether the tree is outside your house or inside it.

  13. “Are there other words, that at least in some context, are their own opposite?”

    Not quite the same word (turns out I can’t spell), but raise and raze are opposites.

  14. “Are there other words that, at least in come context, are their own opposite?”

    To dust. It can refer to adding a powdery substance to something (“dust the doughnuts with powdered sugar”), or to removing a powdery substance from something (“dust the bookcase”).

    Didn’t think of it myself– remembered it from Dinosaur Comics. (What other online comic would ever use the word “contronym”?)

  15. Misremembered. Dinosaur Comics actually referred to them as “homographic homophonic autoantonyms”.

  16. Damn. Not only misremembered, can’t type today. It was “autantonyms”, without the extra ‘o”. (Comic #1104, if you want to experience the awesomeness for yourself.)

  17. “Are there other words, that at least in some context, are their own opposite?”


  18. I hereby term this “Scalzi’s Law,” may it take its rightful place in the pantheon alongside Godwin.

  19. With words naming complex political or economic systems, it is only natural to accept a one sentence distillation of ten million words or more as infallible.

  20. This is especially hilarious in identity politics discussions. Boy is it just a riot when a white person explains to a person of color that the dictionary knows better than they do what racism, privilege, and color mean.

    Ditto when men tell women that we don’t actually know what words like “sexual harassment” and “objectify” mean. That’s a real knee-slapper.


    Using the “word: n.” construction in a serious discussion is kind of like wearing a clown nose into a board meeting. Unless, you know, the discussion’s actually about dictionaries or comparative definitions, in more than an “I’m a derailing moron that’s changing the subject” kind of way.

  21. Yes. It’s sad. There many things I find lamentable of these times.

    Being in such a horrifyingly tiny minority of critical thinkers is one of them. Having my willingness – nay, eagerness – to be proven wrong and thereby learn something seen as a sign of weakness is even worse.

    I seem to be in the bizarre situation of being about ready to pick up a firearm to defend my right to be wrong.

    That’s pretty messed up right there.

  22. scalzi: a complex concept found on the internet

    I really have nothing of substance to add here.

    The internet has the wonderful capability of bringing people together from around the world and allow them to exchange ideas freely. While on the other hand, thanks to dictionary.com and wiki every one is an “expert” on everything.

  23. So, the Internet should be different from any other general cross section of humanity?

    Thank you Snowcrash.

  24. John, if you don’t fardel, anyone can fleer your mezzanine. But then, dictionaries are only borax for trampolines. Pontoon?

  25. Back in J school, I once wrote a paper about how, if we journalists are to deal in facts, we must first decide what defines one.

    Someone operating from the scientific method (or empiricism in general) is likely to define facts far differently than someone operating from divine revelation (or the purported written form thereof), so which definition takes precedence in public discourse (including media)? Is requiring an evidentiary standard to define facts (and thus report said facts) an unfair marginalization of those for whom scripture is the only necessary reference?

  26. Perhaps a contributing factor is the presence of confident yet poor sources on the Internet. A vicious cycle.

    If B, who knows nothing, views the opinion of A, who knows very little, perhaps B would continue searching for more information on the subject. But if A pretends to know everything about it, B will be more confident in using A as the sole source.

    This perpetuates when C, D, and E all read either A or B, neither of whom have good information yet both have utmost confidence. Eventually the multitude of poor sources appears to be corraboration. In fact it’s just the ghost of the Internet, a phantom of links and stolen content. Seize the cheesecloth!

  27. To be painfully serious for a moment: When the Bush regime says something is “extreme interrogation” and not “torture,” I’m not happy. Yes, definitions evolve, but the motives of those who reject dictionary definitions should always be questioned.

  28. I think that the problem of people arguing from limited knowledge or understanding is definitely exacerbated online by the easy ability with *highlight, right click, google this* or dictionary search toolbar functions to quickly discover the basic meaning of a word. If I’m reading something with references to things beyond my ken, like the physics jokes in xkcd, I can bone up on them on wikipedia well enough to get the basic idea. I’ve been gifted with enough self-awareness to avoid immediately arguing with actual physicists over the concept, though.
    As Another Andrew said at 10, there are definitely also the folks who latch on to one particular definition. Sometimes it’s the one that best bolsters their position; other times just the one with the least long words or complexity of meaning. Me, I just sit on my hands.

  29. “Are there other words, that at least in some context, are their own opposite?”

    “Cleave” and “can” come to mind. This was once a question on CarTalk – they came up with a couple dozen.

  30. There’s this word in danish – patetisk.

    In modern use (I suppose derived from the english pathetic) it means small, unimportant, laughable; whereas an older, but still correct, usage is derived from the greek pathos and means intense, passionate, grand, significant.

    Although I expect that makes it two different words that only happen to be spelled exactly the same way.

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