I'm asking this out of personal curiosity, it's not required for a document or anything. My friends and I often have interesting conversations or debates, and often times we get stuck on an issue merely because we have different understandings of the same word. I use the word 'semantics' to try to describe it, but I'm sure that isn't the correct word.

My 'research' leads me to the word ambiguity, which I guess makes sense, but I'd like to know if there's a better word for it.

I am NOT asking for the word defining a word that has multiple meanings. (For example, wind meaning the gusts and to turn and/or crank a mechanism.) All other prior research leads to this answer.

Example for my question: If two people have the word 'justice', and each person knows the definition of the word, but take the meaning of the word differently, what is that called?

If my question doesn't meet some sort of preferred formatting, just tell me what I did wrong in posting this, and I'll rephrase it later.

  • There are gross polysemic differences of accepted definitions (some people say that BBC is an acronym while others say it's not) and gross polysemic differences of confused terminology, whether deliberate or not (H Wilson's use of an allowed but rare sense of 'pragmatic' comes to mind). But the finer differences in shades of meaning get really tricky. Is my 'vermilion' the same as yours? My 'near'? As someone has said, 'All words are infinitely polysemous'. Commented Apr 28, 2014 at 18:58
  • While the answers provide some more properly discussed terms, it comes to mind that England and the United States (and other pairs, too, I bet) are described as "nations separated by a common language." Commented Apr 28, 2014 at 21:36
  • 1
    I've always called that situation a juxtaposition. If you disagree, well, then I guess we have a juxtaposition. (smilemoji)
    – Patrick M
    Commented Apr 29, 2014 at 2:18
  • 4
    Yeah it's called english.stackexchange.com
    – Mou某
    Commented Apr 29, 2014 at 14:27
  • Miscommunication? :)
    – BobRodes
    Commented Apr 29, 2014 at 18:42

7 Answers 7


A given individual's idiosyncratic use of language or words is called an idiolect, and a single word with multiple or ambiguous meanings can be described as multivalent but for generally describing the varying meanings of words, semantics is in fact correct. When you say "we are arguing semantics" you mean "we are arguing over the meanings/definitions of our words."

It's a little off topic for this SE, but it's worth mentioning that a number of noted philosophers have devoted their careers to semantics and the impact of semantics on philosophical debates.

  • That answers my question, but to clarify, what do you mean by 'idiosyncratic' (or is this where I google it..)? Along with the slight off-topic, I also find the impact of the meaning of words quite interesting. Commented Apr 28, 2014 at 15:32
  • Idiosyncratic is anything peculiar or distinctive to an individual, something that you do that no one else does in exactly the same way. Commented Apr 28, 2014 at 16:11
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    I know some people I'd call idiolects, but they'd misunderstand my meaning ;-) Commented Apr 28, 2014 at 22:21

Semantic discord

Semantic discord is the situation where two parties disagree on the definition of a word or several words essential to communicating or formulating any concept at issue.

Semantic disputes are arguments that arise over terms due to semantic discord.

A semantic dispute is a disagreement that arises if the parties involved disagree about whether a particular claim is true, not because they disagree on material facts, but rather because they disagree on the definitions of a word (or several words) essential to formulating the claim at issue.

Semantic disputes can result in the logical fallacy of equivocation.

  • then , semantic disagreement or semantic dispute work as well ? Commented Apr 29, 2014 at 7:50

Consider semantic dissonance.

dissonance: a conflict of people's opinions or actions or characters.

"I disagree with the first sentence but I suspect my disagreement stems from a semantic dissonance with the author."

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    Not a recognised term, unlike 'semantic discord'. Hence misleading when appearing next to a recognised answer. Commented Sep 15, 2021 at 10:24

If two people have the word ‘justice’, and each person knows the definition of the word, but take the meaning of the word differently, what is that called?

If two people are having a debate and are disagreeing with each other due to a fundamental misunderstanding of what the other person is talking about (as might be caused by their using different definitions of the same terms), this might be called speaking (or arguing) at cross-purposes.

Collins gives:

to be at cross-purposes with [somebody] to have a mutual lack of understanding with someone


Colloquially, this is sometimes referred to as "talking past each other."

  • 1
    To me, that more often means two people that are talking without listening to one another.
    – BobRodes
    Commented Apr 29, 2014 at 18:43
  • Fair. But in practice the two often go hand-in-hand. Commented Apr 30, 2014 at 14:17
  • That's true also.
    – BobRodes
    Commented Apr 30, 2014 at 21:24

While people you communicate with may agree on a word's literal meaning (its denotation), there may still be differences in how each party understands the word's


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    There might also be misunderstandings about a word's denotation. Also, this doesn't address the question. Commented Apr 28, 2014 at 19:30

some various choices of words or word forms that may help to answer your question are: interpretation, worldview

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