Monday, February 05, 2007

Semantics - the meaning of words...

It is interesting (to me anyway) how the meaning of words, or the interpretation of a phrase can radically affect how something is taken by someone else.

Consider the following situation.  You are offered a chance to do something next weekend.  You don't really care one way or the other if you do this event.  You might be tempted (I would have been until recently!) to say:

I am ambivalent about doing that

Turns out that would be an entirely incorrect way to say that!  It certainly does not say what you mean.  Ambivalent means you have really strong, conflicting thoughts (like a love/hate pair of feelings) about something.  I always thought it meant "I don't care one way or the other" - because I never really looked it up, rather - I probably deduced its meaning from the way it appeared to be used.

I only discovered this in a conversation with a friend who was trying to make a tough decision.  They expressed their "ambivalence" and I said something to the effect of "wow, if it were me - I would be torn with strong reasons pulling me in two directions".  They said precisely :)  A discussion as to the meaning of the word ambivalent followed and that was when I learned what ambivalent really meant.

It makes me a bit leery of using that word in the future :)  What if I use it correctly, but the person listening to me has the wrong meaning stuck in their head?  It completely changes the meaning of what I'm saying.

I read another more subtle example of this over the weekend.  The article is Programmers Don't Like to Code.  I myself have said "coders love to write code - it is what they do".  But, after reading that, I would have to at least partially agree.  Coders don't necessarily like to code - they like to solve problems - in their own way (which necessitates writing code).  Maybe a case of false causality :)  Coders write code not because they like to, but because they have to.  Not necessarily a problem with not understanding the correct definition of a word - but how a phrase is interpreted.

I am reminded of this old entry of mine...



Blogger Tim... said....

This sort of thing happens to me all the time. I've spent quite a lot of time with people who have English as a second language, and I'm amazed how many words I can't give a concise definition of. After looking in the dictionary I usually find I'm using the word correctly, but sometimes find the usage is open to interpretation.

We acquire so much of our vocabulary from the conversations going on around us and never question it, until something or someone draws our attention to it.



Mon Feb 05, 10:34:00 AM EST  

Anonymous Sokrates said....

I think, most programmers like to code.
Programmers which don't like to code just use SQL. ;-)

Mon Feb 05, 10:49:00 AM EST  

Blogger Thomas Kyte said....

Sokrates said...

well, maybe yes, maybe no...
this shows you can write lots and lots of really bad code using SQL too

Mon Feb 05, 10:53:00 AM EST  

Blogger Bob said....

"It makes me a bit leery of using that word in the future." Learning the "real" meaning of ambivalent was eye opening for me too. I've decided to use it properly but to make sure the recipient catches my intent.

Great to have you back, Tom!

Mon Feb 05, 12:22:00 PM EST  

Anonymous cephyn said....

It's not so bad really - the m-w link has definition 2b as "uncertainty as to which approach to follow " - which is how many people use it.

So while you may not have been aware of its original definition, you have not been using it incorrectly either. You've simply learned another correct way to use the word.

Mon Feb 05, 12:35:00 PM EST  

Blogger Thomas Kyte said....

cephyn said...

I disagree, that second definition is as far from what many people assume it to be as the first.

there is a huge difference between

a) not CARING (apathetic)
b) uncertainty as to which approach to follow

If I don't care if I go to some event, that is very different from being uncertain about wanting to go to that event.

Mon Feb 05, 12:39:00 PM EST  

Anonymous David Aldridge said....

If programmers are much more keen of solving problems than on writing code, why is it so stinkin' difficult to get them to write a detailed specification in which they describe the solutions to the problems prior to writing the code that implements them? Is it just a matter of educating them to realise that the solutions can be explored and expressed more robustly outside of their favourite language? If they did learn that, would they then lose interest in implementing the solution in code?

Mon Feb 05, 01:19:00 PM EST  

Blogger Robert said....


What about the word 'deprecated'?
I have been using it to mean 'obsolete' features that don't work anymore... until I did a little research and found it means 'not-recommended' features (i.e. on their way out); but they still work.

Do you agree with this distinction?



Mon Feb 05, 01:24:00 PM EST  

Anonymous Kevin Closson said....

I've always said that coding is a tool of the engineer.

I've never liked theterm "coder" as it always made me think of a construction worker begin called who is a "hammerer."

Mon Feb 05, 01:37:00 PM EST  

Anonymous Gabe said....

That 2b from the m-w dictionary is slightly misleading.
Following the etymology of ambivalent shows that ambi=both approaches have to be worthy of consideration. Not caring one way or another is not being ambivalent. It is like comparing Null with Null, Null with Value or Value with Null… the result is Null; Ambivalence doesn’t take Null as input.

Bit like ambidextrous … one does require 2 hands in the first place.

Mon Feb 05, 02:03:00 PM EST  

Anonymous cephyn said....

"If I don't care if I go to some event, that is very different from being uncertain about wanting to go to that event."

Why do you not care? Because you can be happy with either outcome? Because you can think of positive reasons to go or not go to the event?

If you were unhappy with either choice, you'd try to come up with a 3rd option. If you preferred one option over the other, you would not say "I don't care". But if you can find reasons to follow either path, equally appealing, you are uncertain as to which way to go, you are ambivalent. In this case, when someone asks, "do you want to go to the event" you might reply "i don't care, either way is fine. I'm ambivalent." You do not prefer one outcome over the other. Seems to me it's the same. If you really really didn't care, you'd ignore the choices entirely.

Mon Feb 05, 02:16:00 PM EST  

Blogger Thomas Kyte said....

What about the word 'deprecated'?

To me it was "this will be unsupported in the future, you should stop using this"

Mon Feb 05, 02:58:00 PM EST  

Anonymous Anonymous said....

Reminds me of an English professor I had for a couple courses. Before she gave the first paper in each course, she went over proper word choice in some detail. An example she gave is when she was in college during a phone interview she told the interviewer that she was anxious to meet in person. The interviewer asked her if she really was anxious or if she was eager to meet. The interviewer respectfully told her that anxious had connotations of doubt and nervousness whereas eager meant that she was looking forward to it. That example's always stuck with me.

Mon Feb 05, 05:04:00 PM EST  

Blogger Roderick said....

I guess I have been guilty of being ignorant about the proper use of ambivalent as well. I thought about using the word apathetic or indifferent instead but that sounds even worse. Maybe I'll say I'm neutral from now on.
I find writing code to be frustrating and tedious. Maybe that's why I stay in Support where I can solve problems without much coding.

Mon Feb 05, 05:44:00 PM EST  

Anonymous Chris said....

One thing about programmers and engineers is sometimes they enjoy solving problems so much, they will go out of their way to find or create a problem to solve.

Tue Feb 06, 06:44:00 AM EST  

Blogger SeanMacGC said....

Unfortunately, there are many words in the English language where the original meaning has been mangled through sheer force of common misusage.

One example is decimate, which does not mean to annihilate, as it is interpreted in common usage today; rather it means to destroy a tenth of (though the original meaning is creeping into obsolescence it would appear). Another example is fulsome, which means offensive to good taste, yet it is generally used to denote something particularly full and rounded.

Obviously, it's easy to take very different meanings from sentiments expressed with these words, depending what your understanding of them is.

Tue Feb 06, 08:50:00 AM EST  

Blogger Thomas Kyte said....

One of my favorite examples of the changing meaning over time is awful

Tue Feb 06, 09:09:00 AM EST  

Anonymous Anonymous said....

Another good one is terrific. Most of us tend to think of it in the positive sense, as in "Tom's site is terrific!", but the original meaning was akin to "terrifying".

Bob Shepard

Tue Feb 06, 11:55:00 AM EST  

Anonymous Anonymous said....

I always find this with the use of "moot". People think it means "no longer of relevance", when in fact it is defined as "arguable" or "debatable". However, I received a newsletter this morning that capped it all for me by saying that the point was now "mute", which I think probably captures the idea most amusingly.

Tue Feb 06, 12:25:00 PM EST  

Blogger Howard J. Rogers said....

Actually moot can mean 'doubtful', 'hypothetical', 'of no practical meaning or value' -and in all those meanings, a 'moot point' is indeed one that's not worth bothering about.

From the land that brought us 'architected' when what they really meant was 'designed', I find this discussion curious.

Tue Feb 06, 01:32:00 PM EST  

Blogger Shuchi said....

In India we often say 'I have some doubts about this' to mean 'I have some questions regarding the matter'. The word 'doubt' is interpreted elsewhere to imply distrust or disbelief. Have seen this cause unintended offence when we are communicating with people abroad.

Wed Feb 07, 01:27:00 AM EST  

Anonymous Anonymous said....

Nobody mentioned "Girl, Interrupted" ?!? A similar situation is portrayed with the same word 'ambivalent'. The main character uses the same meaning as Tom and was then corrected. Just thought it was an interesting coincidence.

Mon Feb 12, 09:34:00 AM EST  

Blogger Thomas Kyte said....

'girl interrupted'

hmmm, not a movie I've seen ;)

Mon Feb 12, 09:37:00 AM EST  


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