Word Meaning is Fluid

Action Shaped Holes

In the previous post concerned with creativity of meaning, we have seen a long list of examples where a noun, when used as a verb, really just means “do that which you do with that noun”, and so the phrase “to bed” just means that which you do on a bed. The “to __” sets up an action shaped hole that can be filled with an associated action.

Noun Shaped Holes

Just as “to __” is action-shaped, “the __” is a noun-shaped hole and casts its contents into a thing. The word “good” is an adjective, describing a property: good book, good wine, good time. But when shoved into the noun-shaped hole, it happily becomes persons (who are good), as we see happen in the movie title “The good, the bad, and the ugly”, in the tv-show title “the bold and the beautiful” and in the phrase “the meek shall inherit the earth”.

Arbitrary Shapes

The shape of the hole can be virtually any category: a drink, a place of work, a government (e.g., “Washington” fills such as hole in “__ sent an ambassador to France”), a scandal (e.g., “sharpie” fills a part-word hole in “__gate”)

Feature, not Bug

This ambiguity and shape shifting is a nightmare for someone wanting to have language mean only what they mean and be precise and unambiguous. It also makes the work of writing computer programs that understand language many times harder. This is also leads to wild and bogus claims such as “Sanskrit is great for computer programming because there you say exactly what you mean and the parsing is obvious”.

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Abhijit Mahabal

Abhijit Mahabal

I do unsupervised concept discovery at Pinterest (and previously at Google). Twitter: @amahabal