What’s in a word, and does it matter?

Lately I’ve been thinking about definitions.  How they are formed, how they change, how they can end up taking away more than they provide for meaning, and whether or not agreed-upon definitions are important.  I’m not terribly concerned with definitions of tangible objects, like apples.  Whether or not you agree with me about what an apple is, I can still make a pie out of it.  I can show you a picture of an apple, and you will probably gain enough of an understanding of what it is to agree that perhaps it should be baked into a pie.  What I am concerned with are the less concrete concepts, the ones that float around in the ether of meaninglessness until we attach the right combination of other words to them.

How does this happen?  Kind of like family dinners: lots of arguing.  The dictionary is not my focus here, but this neat infographic from the Oxford English Dictionary shows the process for new entry creation, from sourcing and researching to writing the entry.  Although there actually is a potentially political aspect to the OED research process (one of the requirements for new entries is that the word not be used only by a small or specific group of people), in this post I am going to focus on words that inhabit more clearly contested spaces in the academic, political, and colloquial realms.

Let’s start with terrorism.  In a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) I recently participated in on theories and practice in terrorism and counterterrorism, we were presented with dozens of competing definitions of the term; renowned terrorism scholar Alex P. Schmid reportedly complied over 250.  Schmid is widely quoted as writing that

academics “have spilled almost as much ink as the actors of terrorism have spilled blood,”

and yet neither academics nor policy-makers have reached a consensus on what the word means.

Without delving into the specifics of a definition, let’s answer this question: does it matter if we don’t agree?  There are scholars on both sides of this debate, as the European research project Transnational Terrorism, Security and the Rule of Law discussed in their working paper on defining terrorism.  Some people advocate an approach like the one infamously taken by former US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart to hardcore porn: “I know it when I see it.”  Others, and I agree with this concern, fear that a lack of definition allows abuse of the term.  Are political dissidents terrorists?  It depends on where you are and who you ask.  I am going to steer away from the Global War on Terror for this post, but consider what a “war on terror” means when terrorism is a malleable term.

Now, certain groups do have their own definitions of terrorism, so I am not claiming that the term is thrown around free of meaning, but rather with no consensus ON that meaning.  In practice, this fosters confusion and hampers efforts to combine forces, both within our own borders and internationally.  The U.S. Department of Defense defines terrorism slightly differently from the FBI, which defines terrorism slightly differently from the U.S. Department of State, and so on.  When we move into the international arena, we multiply this effect.  Although the United Nations can list its counter-terrorism efforts for pages, member nations do not agree on who qualifies as a terrorist.

Can states be considered terrorists?  Enough people seem to think so for the study of state terrorism to exist, but that is certainly not part of a definition that all UN member states will agree to.  If it can’t be agreed upon, do we ignore it?  Do we go it alone?  How do we regulate problems that we can’t agree on?  We know from experience that the international community at large does not appreciate it when one group of actors defines a problem one way and won’t take no for an answer (read: past US and NATO actions), but when the alternative is to stay at the dinner table and argue, possibly fruitlessly, what are we to do?  UN Security Council Resolution 1373, adopted after the September 11th attacks in 2001, lays out specific actions that member states are to refrain from in an effort to curb future terrorist attacks (such as denying terrorists safe haven and criminalizing the funding of terrorist acts).  These restrictions can be very effective, but without consensus on who they apply to, the resolution loses some bite.

Moving into a related realm of definitional controversy, we have words that do have agreed-upon meanings – too many of them. Stephen Saideman, who holds the Paterson Chair in International Affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa, wrote in a recent blog post,

“I am not sure what neo-liberal means because it already had different meanings depending on whether one was talking about International Relations Theory, economic policy, and whatever else.  But now it is a way to label folks with whom one disagrees.  And poof, whatever use of the concept is gone.”

Saideman raises an excellent point that I think was made abundantly clear during the recent US government shutdown.  We saw Republican and Democrat flung around as accusations rather than as indicators of policy objectives.  So what do they mean, and what do we do when meanings change or disappear altogether?

Other words to consider: democracy, poverty, freedom, equality (perhaps in light of the affirmative action debates in the US).  I know this has been a long post and that it also leaves a lot out, so please talk to me about your take on role of definition, words that you think warrant discussion, and anything else that comes to mind!  On my end, it’s time for a cookie (which HAS taken on new meanings, but thankfully still appears to refer to the chocolate kind at least sometimes).


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