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“If a concept is not well defined, it can be abused.”


The title to this post comes from an article, The bigger picture, by Tomas Vicsek in the 11 July 02 Nature. It’s a good article and a worthy read. Vicsek’s focus is on the use and misuse of “complexity” although his points carry through everything that semanticists talk about.

I GET IT!For example, “semantics”. What does that word mean, really? Can you use it in a sentence without being semantically challenged? And can semanticists explain what they do in a clear, concise, easily accessible manner so that the common person on the street’s eyes will light up and they will go “aHA! Now I get it!”?

I’ve written about and used in presentations the anecdote of the anthropologist and microbiologist having lunch together one day. The microbiologist looks at her watch and exclaims, “My gosh, I have to get back and destroy a culture!” and the anthropologist leaps over the table to stop her. One of my recent favorites in this realm of words with discipline specific meanings is “engagement”. I have rarely seen a word take on so many meanings, cause so much argument, have so much written about it and be the source of such division as “engagement” in the field of web analytics.

So what about “semantics”? Can “semantics” be so well defined that it won’t be abused? Is it possible to have intelligent discourse that is also generally accessible?

It better be. At least from a business perspective. Businesses don’t care about the technology behind a solution, only that their problem is solved. Businesses don’t hire “smart”, they hire “solutions” and if the solution is smart, all the better.

Except that “smart” better be able to explain the “solution” in ways management can easily understand and respond to or management won’t pay for smart’s solution.


I mean, look up “semantics” and you get “The study of language meaning”.

Oh, gosh. Geez. Thanks. That helps. A lot.

So I’ll offer this. Semanticists work at stopping confusions. You read a legal document, you’re not a lawyer, you ask a lawyer friend, “What does this mean?” or “Can you explain this to me?” and they do. Right there and then, your lawyer friend is being a semanticist. They’re taking something in a language you don’t understand and putting it into a language you do understand.

On the news, when someone explains the latest Congressional bill in everyday language, they’re being a semanticist, explaining something so that you can understand it.

And so it goes, and it’s that simple. Semanticists bring clarity to things. Business people hire semanticists — they can be lawyers, commentators, physicists — to make things understandable. Right now (this is a guess. I don’t have any stats to back this up) I’m thinking the single field that employs the largest number of semanticists is marketing.

You know, the people who translate all that medical stuff into the short, concise message that causes you to ask your doctor for a sample, or all that automotive stuff into the fifteen second ad that makes you go to the car dealer, or all that culinary expertise that makes you go to the store and pick up this can of soup or that frozen dinner.

See? Semanticists — the folks who make things understandable, who stop confusions — are everywhere. And you didn’t even know it.

var client = “ecoofmeaning”;

3 Comments leave one →
  1. ricklent permalink
    2009/07/28 5:52 pm

    This reminds me of my favorite corporate poet, David Whyte. What? You didn’t know corporations had poets? Well sometimes they do, AND poetry is if nothing else about semantics. And a poem from David Whyte …


    This is not
    the age of information.
    This is not
    the age of information.

    Forget the news
    and the radio
    and the blurred screen.

    This is the time
    of loaves
    and fishes.

    People are hungry,
    and one good word is bread
    for a thousand.

  2. emculturate permalink
    2009/07/31 7:02 pm

    I like your examples here. I’m a software developer myself, working in the realm of data integration across different application systems. What I’ve been trying to define myself is the term “context” and what that means. For example, when two different companies buy the same application software, they never do (and I think never can) implement the same software in the same manner due to their own unique business environment, personnel, and cultural history. Hospitals, for example, care for patients as both “Inpatients” and “Outpatients” to use terms common in the US. But in Australia, outpatients would be called “day patients”.

  3. 2009/08/01 11:01 am

    Thanks for the comments, Dr. Lent and EmCulturate.
    Interesting that you use health care as your example, EmCulturate. Are you aware of the work the CSE is doing to simplify healthcare? Something for future posts, no doubt, and to be supplied by others as I’m not in the forefront of that project.
    Thanks again for your comments.

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