The Concept of a Definition

Concept [noun]: An idea of what something is or how it works.

Definition [noun]: A statement that describes what something is. OR The quality that makes it possible to clearly see the shape, outline, and details of something.

In a sentence: Most people have a positive concept of definitions, but I’m not most people.

I’ve always been somewhat fascinated by the idea of defining something. As a result, I spent a lot of time driving my parents and teachers crazy when I was little. “What color is that?” I’d ask, pointing at a balloon. “Red,” my dad would say. “Why is it called red?” “Because that’s what color it is.” “Why is that color called red?” “Because that’s what it’s called.” Before I could get out another, “But why is it called that?” my dad (or mom, or teacher, or stranger in line at the supermarket) would steer the conversation away.

By the time I was ten I became caught up in learning about ancient languages and ancient civilizations. Etymology was my favorite thing to talk about – with Greek gods, tribes in the Amazon, and Star Trek being the runners-up.

Now, at almost twenty-five (I will be twenty-five in ten days, I’ve just realized), I’ve never really lost my desire to know how definitions form and come to be applied. In fact, with being in college to become a nurse, I now find myself inundated with definitions. I am at the end of my first week of the third quarter and already have five pages filled with vocabulary terms. And I’ve noticed something both frustrating and interesting about them. Even within the same curriculum – that is, the associate’s nursing program at my college – the same word is ascribed slightly different meanings depending on which class I’m actually defining it for.

A good example of this is the word digestion. Fairly simple, right? We digest the food we eat. We break it down. When that process doesn’t go well, we can get gas or throw-up.

Well, according to my Nutritional Principles in Nursing class, digestion is more correctly defined as: The process of breaking down food to release nutrients.

But, according to my Anatomy and Physiology II course (which I passed with an A last quarter), digestion is: A mechanical and chemical process involving multiple steps that occur throughout the alimentary canal.

Now, that is only one example from a few that I’ve come across, but I think it does a fair job of highlighting my childhood frustrations with definitions. Of course the shiny, pretty balloon is red, but how is the ugly, scratchy sweater that I have to wear on picture day also red? Of course, in the course of growing up, I came to understand that context – while important – doesn’t always influence a person’s perception . . . or how they define things.

A person can understand that there’s a difference between the nice red of an apple and the often unsettling red of blood, but can still use the term red to describe them both. In the case of my vocab words for school, I can understand that, from the point of view of my nutrition class, the important thing about digestion is that it releases nutrients. And I can also acknowledge that, from the point of view of my A&PII class, the important thing about digestion is that it’s a mechanical and chemical process that takes place in an individual’s alimentary canal.

What’s actually more interesting to me is the way that people use words – or definitions, because words are chosen based on how we define them as individuals or societies – to describe themselves or others. For instance, my mother will happily describe both my sister and I as good. In my case, she’s referring to my tendency toward generosity, diplomacy, and compassion. In my sister’s case, she’s speaking of her cheerfulness, her dislike of violence, and her willingness to help others. The same word, used by the same person to describe people she’s close to,  yet used with different intentions and nuance.

Or, more personally, I would describe myself as submissive. I don’t like conflict, I tend to be more comfortable following orders, and I am naturally inclined to recognize authority. That said, I don’t consider my sister to be submissive, even though all of those statements are also true of her. The difference? I’m not even sure. I just know that, if someone asked me if my sister was also submissive, I would laugh and ask them if they’re crazy. She won’t hesitate to stand up for herself and she’s perfectly capable of saying, “No.

Actually, now that I’m thinking on it, I guess that’s why I don’t think of her as submissive.

Another good, if personal, example of this strange use of words and applications of definitions is my anxiety. I say I have anxiety. I know I have anxiety. My definition of anxiety is not the same definition of anxiety that my co-workers use so liberally. I don’t say, “I’m anxious,” unless I’m huddled on the floor, sobbing, because I think I’m going to spontaneously die of a brain aneurysm and the chemicals in my body are going haywire. My co-workers will say, “I’m anxious,” if they have to call back a customer known to be a jerk to us. It’s a matter of degrees, I suppose, in that case. All of us use the word anxiety to describe an unpleasant state, but our idea of the level of unpleasantness covered by the word varies greatly.

I get accused of arguing semantics, when I bring things like this up during the few conflicts I have. I’ll tell my owner, for example, that I would like to leave early for work. He’ll say okay. We’ll leave just five minutes earlier than we usually do – technically, he’s right and it is earlier . . . but it doesn’t adhere to my concept of the definition of earlier.

(For the record, that’s at least fifteen minutes.)

With so much room for error, as it were, it’s actually impressive that us humans communicate as well as we do, isn’t it? The image in this post is actually of something I stumbled across the other day and I made the decision within seconds of seeing it that it would be my next tattoo. It includes all the letters and numbers of the English alphabet. Every book, every song, every phone number. It’s all in that one image.

And if that’s not a mind-expanding concept, then I don’t know what is.


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