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I have a specific word in mind, but I'd rather not use it to avoid potential bias. I'll edit and post the word if I need to.

Hypothetically, I have a word, "CanHoldWater", defined by Merriam-Webster as

Adjective
A) capable of holding water
B) In biology: capable of holding water overnight

So, if we know a ficus can 'hold water', but just not overnight. Is the statement: "This is a CanHoldWater ficus." true or false?

I would believe that you can use the word intending the second definition, but that the primary definition shouldn't be violated. Is this just a semantics argument that has no answer? Are there written or unwritten rules to creating definitions with this type of scenario in mind?

If this isn't a sufficient example, I'll provide the actual word after some input. In my mind it mirrors the problem with the actual word in my view pretty well, but it's politically loaded.


The word I'm asking about is: Viable

Defined by Merrriam-Webster as:

a: capable of living

b: of a fetus : having attained such form and development of organs as to be normally capable of surviving outside the uterus

If we know a fetus of 1 week is viable by the first definition (because many 1 week fetuses have become living people) - but we're not viable before 26 weeks according to the second definition (because we couldn't survive outside the womb), then these 2 definitions are at odds, for the same word.

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    More specific definitions are common in science, I don’t see any problem with a second definition being narrower than the “primary” or most common. These are not subsets.
    – Xanne
    Sep 23, 2020 at 1:15
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    Literally? Or its antonym, literally?
    – Laurel
    Sep 23, 2020 at 1:51
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    If a word with more than one definition could only be used in a way that were compatible with all of the definitions then you wouldn't really have multiple definitions it would be one very detailed definition.
    – nnnnnn
    Oct 23, 2020 at 10:52
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    Also I'm not sure that your concept of a "primary" definition applies, or certainly doesn't apply universally: dictionaries have to list definitions in some order but that doesn't mean the first always has priority in actual usage.
    – nnnnnn
    Oct 23, 2020 at 11:00
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    I think it's cool!
    – Hot Licks
    Oct 23, 2020 at 11:45

5 Answers 5

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Yes. There's even a term for the situation where one definition may contradict another, the less prototypical definition being termed a stipulative definition. Wikipedia has good articles on this, though I'll reformat below:

  • Dictionary definition / Lexical definition

The lexical definition of a term, also known as the dictionary definition, is the meaning of the term in common usage. As its other name implies, this is the sort of definition one is likely to find in the dictionary [and usually listed first or not far from first where there are different senses, in those dictionaries listing in order of frequency of usage].

[Wikipedia]

  • Precising definition

A precising definition is a definition that contracts or reduces the scope of the lexical definition of a term for a specific purpose by including additional criteria that narrow down the set of things meeting the definition.

For example, a dictionary may define the term "student" as

  1. anyone attending an educational institution of any type, or
  2. anyone who studies something.

However, a movie theater may propose a precising definition for the word "student" of

[3]. any person under the age of 18 enrolled in a local [Borough of Stockport] school

in order to determine who is eligible to receive discounted tickets.

Precising definitions are generally used in contexts where vagueness is unacceptable; many legal definitions are precising definitions, as are company policies. This type of definition is useful in preventing disputes that arise from the involved parties using different definitions of the term in question.

A precising definition is intended to make a vague word more precise so that the word's meaning is not left to the interpretation of the reader or listener. Here is an example:

From a class syllabus:

"Class participation" means attending class, listening attentively, answering and asking questions, and participating in class discussions.

  • Stipulative definition

A stipulative definition is similar to a precising definition, but differs in that a stipulative definition may contradict the lexical definition, while a precising definition does not.

[Wikipedia]

So a precising definition tightens up the basic dictionary definition, and obviously some elements accepted by the broader definition will be rejected by the narrower definition. A layman's hurricane may not be a meteorologist's. (And note that those who claim 'this definition is the only one acceptable' are hyper-prescriptivist.)

A stipulative definition may (I'm not sure why Wikipedia doesn't say does) even include elements rejected by the basic dictionary definition ... and certainly by rival stipulative definitions ('sentence', 'phrasal verb' and 'acronym' come to mind, though I'm fairly sure dictionaries aren't all in agreement even on the 'basic' meanings).

While pragmatics requires that we make an effort to adapt to the register in use in the situation obtaining ('similar' means 'of exactly the same shape though not necessarily size' in maths classes, but 'alike in some significant respects' in the real world), often the greatest error is failing to define terms before trying to discuss a topic. 'The dictionary says ...' is the root of much evil.

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  • The dictionary says ...' is the root of much evil. Agreed. But the dictionary should at least not be at odds with itself, which is my (perceived?) issue. Stipulative would be a good term here, but the stipulative red in RGB (#FF0000) shouldn't negate what we agree is red with our eyes (e.g. #FF0001). The stipulative 'injury' in law shouldn't conflict with our concept of a child's injury, etc.
    – John
    Nov 2, 2020 at 1:40
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    But words have different senses. Some may conflict (look up 'hurricane' at CED), meaning that one sense applies while another does not (often leading to arguments between those assuming different meanings). And sometimes, senses differ enormously (the same word 'cleave' has senses 'adhere firmly' and 'split apart'). This is how words are used. English cannot be termed well-behaved. Dictionaries in the main report faithfully on how language is used, cherished conflicts included. Nov 2, 2020 at 12:33
  • Hurricane is a very good example of where the second and first definitions can lead to a conflicted understanding. And, you've indicated that dictionaries do contain such conflicts, I just see this as an unnecessary one because this definition goes further by conflating fetus with child. A fetus is by definition in the uterus. To evaluate viability elsewhere is arbitrary. To me at least, it seems as nonsensical as including a second definition of carrot to be, when eaten on the moon, if it still appears orange, it's still a carrot. Thanks for your responses and answer.
    – John
    Nov 7, 2020 at 17:26
  • Dictionaries record ways people use words. If they use them in different ways in sufficient numbers, the dictionary would be wrong not to include all of them. It would be more misleading to imply that some are not in use (dictionaries flag where words are considered to be largely misused, and have expert panels set up to adjudicate). M-W adds the specifying caveat 'of a fetus'; this would be sufficient to prompt serious researchers to investigate usage in the literature. Nov 7, 2020 at 19:27
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So, if we know a ficus can 'hold water', but just not overnight. Is the statement: "This is a CanHoldWater ficus." true or false?

It depends on whether we're in a context that requires the specialist definition. Is the statement found in a biology journal? Is the speaker a biologist? Is the audience a biologist? There are probably cases where is clearly one or the other and cases where it's ambiguous.

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  • @John and the definition depends on the context.
    – phoog
    Sep 23, 2020 at 4:57
  • @John how would that even work?
    – phoog
    Sep 23, 2020 at 4:59
  • @John and that is the context?
    – phoog
    Sep 23, 2020 at 5:07
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If we know a fetus of 1 week is viable by the first definition (because many 1 week fetuses have become living people) - but we're not viable before 26 weeks according to the second definition (because we couldn't survive outside the womb), then these 2 definitions are at odds, for the same word.

The initial premises are wrong inasmuch as they are not accurate.

Firstly, "viable" speaks to a potential capability to continue an independent process of life. We know this because there are stillbirths.

A one week fetus is viable as long as it is in the womb. A 26 week fetus is viable both inside and outside the womb.

Neither definition is false.

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  • I didn't say either was false, I said they're at odds. In the first context, a 14 week fetus is viable, and in the second it is not viable.
    – John
    Nov 2, 2020 at 1:09
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There are many words that have two definitions that are exact opposites of each other, let alone of varying nuances as in your examples.

Merriam Webster

cleave verb (1) Definition of cleave (Entry 1 of 2)

intransitive verb : to adhere firmly and closely or loyally and unwaveringly

cleave verb (2)

Definition of cleave (Entry 2 of 2)

transitive verb 1 : to divide by or as if by a cutting blow : split

Other well known examples of "contronyms" are sanction, seed, trim

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  • Not a question of homonyms.
    – John
    Nov 2, 2020 at 11:40
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    Cleave_(1) and _cleave (2), as M-W labels them, are different words which look and sound the same. As John says, homonyms. Sanction is a better example, with senses of the same word (polysemes) that contradict. But this has been covered in previous questions on ELU. OP is here asking about senses of what is obviously the same word that are contradictory. At [CED], definitions of hurricane: 'a violent storm with strong circular winds, esp. in the western Atlantic Ocean' and 'a violent storm with strong circular winds of at least 72 miles (or 118 kilometers) per hour, esp. ... Nov 2, 2020 at 12:26
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    in the western Atlantic Ocean' are both given. So people using the less precise definition may class a windstorm as a hurricane while those insisting on the more precise definition may class it as 'a tropical storm'. Neither is incorrect; both definitions are used. But they both need to realise that. cited: CED. Nov 2, 2020 at 12:26
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Meaning of a word comes from its context.

Viable in the first definition requires the context to be the uterus, and in the second, to be the world.

They are restricted to their respective context, so they don't conflict.

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  • Context is always important, but if I use my shoe as a hammer, that shouldn't invalidate its primary definition of it being a shoe.
    – John
    Nov 7, 2020 at 16:35

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