A friend recently used the acronym “SMH” and I had no clue what it meant, so I looked it up via one of those search engine thingies all the cool kids are talking about. It linked me to an entry in the Urban Dictionary that was constituted by an argument between very, very thoughtful and intelligent people insisting that the “true meaning” of the acronym was variously “shake my head”, “so much hate”, “slap my head”, “suck my head”, and so on.
I used to care a great deal about the “true meaning” of words, but I got better.
It goes like this.
Back in the days before the World Wide Web we had a thing called “The Internet” which supported something called “USENet” via the “Network News Transport Protocol”. This allowed strangers from around the world–or in some cases from across campus–to argue vociferously about a wide array of topics, some of which actually mattered. The only things USENet was lacking was 1) scalability and 2) pictures of cats (although cats did figure in the longest-running cross-newsgroup discussion ever, regarding what happens if you strap a piece of toast, butter-side-up, to a cat, and drop them–since toast always lands butter-side-down and cats always land on their feet… what happens?)
The lack of scalability is generally fingered as the cause for USENet’s ultimate demise in the wake of the Endless September in 1995, I’m not entirely sure it wasn’t the absence of cats that didn’t do it in.
It was a curious experience while it lasted, and it was enlightening for the few of us who were in the right frame of mind. So far as I know, I am the only person who has ever changed his mind about anything as a result of a discussion on USENet, but that doesn’t preclude it happening others.
One of the things I learned is that people care passionately about the “true meaning” of words. I used to get into arguments about this. What does “freedom” really mean? Or “democracy”? Or “love”? It turns out people have different ideas about these and many other far more mundane concepts, and are more than willing to defend their particular preferred meanings quite… vigorously.
I eventually adopted a tactic of yielding the word to the other party, side-stepping the semantic issue entirely. I would say things like this, “Granted that we can use ‘freedom’ (or ‘love’, or ‘democracy’ or whatever) to mean just what you want it to mean. But there is this other concept, the one that I’ve been using the word ‘freedom’ (etc) for, and I want to talk about that concept. I don’t care what word we use for it. We can call it ‘bleen’ for all I care. But there is a concept there, and that’s what I want to talk about, not the ‘true meaning’ of ‘freedom’ (etc)”
The thing that I found when I did this is that my interlocutor almost always dropped the discussion. They didn’t care about the concept, only the word. So long as the arbitrary string of letters was “owned” by their “true meaning”, they were happy.
This “defensive epistemology” is a curious phenomenon. Who really cares what a word or acronym “really means”? They are symbols of convenience, nothing more. If someone wants to use a word to mean something bizarre, like “socialism” for “moderately progressive”, let them, in the context of discussions with them. Tell them that: “OK, you want to use the word ‘socialism’ to mean ‘moderate reformist tendencies within a system of corporate oligarchy’. Now, that’s not what most people use the word ‘socialism’ to mean, but I don’t care about that. I care about the bi-partisan use of warrentless wiretaps (which are often on wireless connections, so should be called ‘warrentless wirelesstaps’) and armed drones to kill people who someone in power thinks might be a terrorist suspect.”
This won’t likely lead to a more productive discussion, because there’s a limit to what you can discuss with someone who is completely addled by ideology, but you’ll likely find that if you do this, the individual in question will lose interest and wander away to annoy some less enlightened individual.