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Is there a name for the concept that some words have different degrees of precision, and that misalignment or ambiguity over the intended precision easily leads to misunderstanding?

Some examples, but please note that I'm not trying to be particularly accurate with these definitions, but instead offered for purpose of drawing the point that there are two senses with differing levels of precision, and this ambiguity of precision if not addressed could lead to confusion/argument.

In colloquial usage the word "chemical" generally refers to dangerous substances, more likely liquid, usually man-made, and differentiated from "natural"; while in scientific usage a "chemical" is pretty much anything made of atoms — arsenic is a naturally occuring chemical substance, as even is gold.

A scientific "theory" is more narrowly defined than the colloquial usage, and particularly so as with a conspiracy "theory".

Today, armour scholars define "mail" as it was defined in the Middle Ages — consisting of a "fabric" of interlocked metal rings that form a strong, flexible, mesh armour. (The word "mail" being derived through the Old English mayle, the French maille, and Italian maglia, from the Latin macula, which refers to the mesh of a net). This definition of mail was not the one used by Victorian scholars though. They used the word in a more general sense — to describe any sort of metallic body armour (i.e. "mail" is "armour", and thus a need to invent the term "chain mail"). [cribbed from here]

So, similar to how a synecdoche refers to parts/whole of a thing, but different in that here the differentiation is by precision. Also, polysemy is too broad, as it encompasses any alternatives of definition and not specifically two senses which are similar in topic/direction but otherwise disagree in terms of precision.

(Doesn't have to be a single word)


Update: it would appear the closest sense has to do with Semantic Broadening and Semantic Narrowing.

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    I think you want sense (which of course has a regular meaning, and a special lexicographical one, as it should).
    – Phil Sweet
    Feb 9, 2021 at 3:49
  • @KannE, can you provide references to support your claim that "chemical" is defined as being dangerous and not natural?
    – Peter
    Feb 9, 2021 at 3:58
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    Chemical-free soup! Yay!
    – Xanne
    Feb 9, 2021 at 4:14
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    Does the accepted answer here answer your question? Can a secondary definition violate / negate the first definition?. The concepts of hypernymy/hyponymy and polysemy are covered comprehensively elsewhere. 'Dictionary definitions' are what you find in standard dictionaries (though there may be conflict even in general usage), while agencies, institutions etc may apply precising or (when there is ensuing conflict) stipulative definitions. I know of ... Feb 9, 2021 at 15:57
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    no term meaning 'degree of polysemy', 'total number of senses found in OED plus academic, business and legal works' or 'confusability rating'. Feb 9, 2021 at 15:57

2 Answers 2

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The problem with finding such a word is that descriptions of definitions have no linear measurement. There is no continuum.

Those who prepare dictionaries can present definitions in whatever order they choose—for example, most common, earliest, or whatever. A word may be used as different parts of speech (noun, verb). One word may have very different meanings. Consider, for example, “bow.”

Words that are uncommon in everyday speech may become more common, like social distancing, the use of which has become more common in the last year and changed in meaning in its most frequent use.

See Wikipedia on lexicography for more information on the theory and practice of making dictionaries.

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  • Thanks for answering. I was unclear, I didn't mean to imply a continuum of senses and I also see in my doddering vagueness I've misled kind respondents down the broader polysemy path too. I've added a 3rd example that might be helpful: "mail" is defined as a form of medieval armour being a mesh of metal links, but another definition has "mail" being armour of any form of fabrication (of which one particular form is termed "chain mail"). (The former definition is regarded by scholars as the correct one).
    – Erics
    Feb 10, 2021 at 5:05
  • Scholars often choose more limited definitions, contriving another word for what they exclude. That’s the way language is. Some dictionaries distinguish, some don’t. Sometimes poisonous snakes include the venomous, but not in Zoology class.
    – Xanne
    Feb 10, 2021 at 6:15
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    @Erics Now you've given the example of 'mail', you've pinpointed the semantic shift known as 'semantic broadening' (narrowing can also occur), certainly (when the older sense is not extinguished, as with 'mail') giving rise to polysemy-with-hypernymy. This has been covered before. // Also note that scholars regard all common usages as 'the correct ones'. Feb 10, 2021 at 15:51
  • Thanks @EdwinAshworth! "Semantic broadening/narrowing" will do for me nicely (lexicographic scholars maybe, but not scholars of medieval armour. Similarly no archeologist would consider "aliens" as a correct answer to "who built it", no matter how common the usage may be. But we're talking about two different things here - acknowledged usage, vs accurate definition. All good.)
    – Erics
    Feb 11, 2021 at 6:42
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The lexicographers might step up, please.

The degrees you are looking for is the description of the definitions of words as their usage is enumerated in the dictionary. As you move from definition 1 to 5 and onward you will see the most common usage first and increasingly less common usages later. This is apparently not done in Merriam Webster

Usages primarily concern themselves with their audience. Advertisers use "chemical" to get a negative reaction from the majority of people. They even say it with a tone to show that it is not pleasant. Away from sales pitches a discussion about chemicals need have no negative interpretation.

"Theory" is a great example. Anyone defending the theory of Evolution is always pointing out that a proper theory is not described in the top two usages in the dictionary. There you see a theory as a general possibility not a scientific hypothesis.

Your degrees of precision are precisely those set forth ad seriatim in each definition. The name for such a listing out I cannot provide.

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  • @KannE; That's why I come here. There is always something to learn. Thanks.
    – Elliot
    Feb 10, 2021 at 1:21

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