Sneaking in Connotations

Yes­ter­day, we saw that in Ja­pan, blood types have taken the place of as­trol­ogy—if your blood type is AB, for ex­am­ple, you’re sup­posed to be “cool and con­trol­led”.

So sup­pose we de­cided to in­vent a new word, “wig­gin”, and defined this word to mean peo­ple with green eyes and black hair—

A green-eyed man with black hair walked into a restau­rant.
“Ha,” said Danny, watch­ing from a nearby table, “did you see that? A wig­gin just walked into the room. Bloody wig­gins. Com­mit all sorts of crimes, they do.”
His sister Erda sighed. “You haven’t seen him com­mit any crimes, have you, Danny?”
“Don’t need to,” Danny said, pro­duc­ing a dic­tio­nary. “See, it says right here in the Oxford English Dic­tionary. ‘Wig­gin. (1) A per­son with green eyes and black hair.’ He’s got green eyes and black hair, he’s a wig­gin. You’re not go­ing to ar­gue with the Oxford English Dic­tionary, are you? By defi­ni­tion, a green-eyed black-haired per­son is a wig­gin.”
“But you called him a wig­gin,” said Erda. “That’s a nasty thing to say about some­one you don’t even know. You’ve got no ev­i­dence that he puts too much ketchup on his burg­ers, or that as a kid he used his sling­shot to launch baby squir­rels.”
“But he is a wig­gin,” Danny said pa­tiently. “He’s got green eyes and black hair, right? Just you watch, as soon as his burger ar­rives, he’s reach­ing for the ketchup.”

The hu­man mind passes from ob­served char­ac­ter­is­tics to in­ferred char­ac­ter­is­tics via the medium of words. In “All hu­mans are mor­tal, Socrates is a hu­man, there­fore Socrates is mor­tal”, the ob­served char­ac­ter­is­tics are Socrates’s clothes, speech, tool use, and gen­er­ally hu­man shape; the cat­e­go­riza­tion is “hu­man”; the in­ferred char­ac­ter­is­tic is poi­son­abil­ity by hem­lock.

Of course there’s no hard dis­tinc­tion be­tween “ob­served char­ac­ter­is­tics” and “in­ferred char­ac­ter­is­tics”. If you hear some­one speak, they’re prob­a­bly shaped like a hu­man, all else be­ing equal. If you see a hu­man figure in the shad­ows, then ce­teris paribus it can prob­a­bly speak.

And yet some prop­er­ties do tend to be more in­ferred than ob­served. You’re more likely to de­cide that some­one is hu­man, and will there­fore burn if ex­posed to open flame, than carry through the in­fer­ence the other way around.

If you look in a dic­tio­nary for the defi­ni­tion of “hu­man”, you’re more likely to find char­ac­ter­is­tics like “in­tel­li­gence” and “feather­less biped”—char­ac­ter­is­tics that are use­ful for quickly eye­bal­ling what is and isn’t a hu­man—rather than the ten thou­sand con­no­ta­tions, from vuln­er­a­bil­ity to hem­lock, to over­con­fi­dence, that we can in­fer from some­one’s be­ing hu­man. Why? Per­haps dic­tio­nar­ies are in­tended to let you match up la­bels to similar­ity groups, and so are de­signed to quickly iso­late clusters in thingspace. Or per­haps the big, dis­t­in­guish­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics are the most salient, and there­fore first to pop into a dic­tio­nary ed­i­tor’s mind. (I’m not sure how aware dic­tio­nary ed­i­tors are of what they re­ally do.)

But the up­shot is that when Danny pulls out his OED to look up “wig­gin”, he sees listed only the first-glance char­ac­ter­is­tics that dis­t­in­guish a wig­gin: Green eyes and black hair. The OED doesn’t list the many minor con­no­ta­tions that have come to at­tach to this term, such as crim­i­nal pro­clivi­ties, culi­nary pe­cu­liar­i­ties, and some un­for­tu­nate child­hood ac­tivi­ties.

How did those con­no­ta­tions get there in the first place? Maybe there was once a fa­mous wig­gin with those prop­er­ties. Or maybe some­one made stuff up at ran­dom, and wrote a se­ries of best­sel­ling books about it (The Wig­gin, Talk­ing to Wig­gins, Rais­ing Your Lit­tle Wig­gin, Wig­gins in the Be­d­room). Maybe even the wig­gins be­lieve it now, and act ac­cord­ingly. As soon as you call some peo­ple “wig­gins”, the word will be­gin ac­quiring con­no­ta­tions.

But re­mem­ber the Parable of Hem­lock: If we go by the log­i­cal class defi­ni­tions, we can never class Socrates as a “hu­man” un­til af­ter we ob­serve him to be mor­tal. When­ever some­one pulls a dic­tio­nary, they’re gen­er­ally try­ing to sneak in a con­no­ta­tion, not the ac­tual defi­ni­tion writ­ten down in the dic­tio­nary.

After all, if the only mean­ing of the word “wig­gin” is “green-eyed black-haired per­son”, then why not just call those peo­ple “green-eyed black-haired peo­ple”? And if you’re won­der­ing whether some­one is a ketchup-reacher, why not ask di­rectly, “Is he a ketchup-reacher?” rather than “Is he a wig­gin?” (Note sub­sti­tu­tion of sub­stance for sym­bol.)

Oh, but ar­gu­ing the real ques­tion would re­quire work. You’d have to ac­tu­ally watch the wig­gin to see if he reached for the ketchup. Or maybe see if you can find statis­tics on how many green-eyed black-haired peo­ple ac­tu­ally like ketchup. At any rate, you wouldn’t be able to do it sit­ting in your liv­ing room with your eyes closed. And peo­ple are lazy. They’d rather ar­gue “by defi­ni­tion”, es­pe­cially since they think “you can define a word any way you like”.

But of course the real rea­son they care whether some­one is a “wig­gin” is a con­no­ta­tion—a feel­ing that comes along with the word—that isn’t in the defi­ni­tion they claim to use.

Imag­ine Danny say­ing, “Look, he’s got green eyes and black hair. He’s a wig­gin! It says so right there in the dic­tio­nary!—there­fore, he’s got black hair. Ar­gue with that, if you can!”

Doesn’t have much of a triumphant ring to it, does it? If the real point of the ar­gu­ment ac­tu­ally was con­tained in the dic­tio­nary defi­ni­tion—if the ar­gu­ment gen­uinely was log­i­cally valid—then the ar­gu­ment would feel empty; it would ei­ther say noth­ing new, or beg the ques­tion.

It’s only the at­tempt to smug­gle in con­no­ta­tions not ex­plic­itly listed in the defi­ni­tion, that makes any­one feel they can score a point that way.