Each of us learns words through context. Sure, we look up dictionary definitions for some words, but the rest we pick up by hearing them being used. In books, in conversations, in movies or songs. Sometimes we learn words by asking a parent, “what does that mean?” and the reply our parent gives us is based on their nuanced understanding of the word, as well. So we don’t learn the objective meanings of most words.
Most words don’t *have* an objective meaning.
Take the concept of “home,” for example. Last night I said to my partner, “let’s go home,” meaning his apartment, even though we were leaving *my* house to go to his. I still called it home. Home can be the state you live in, the city you live in, your neighborhood, your house. Sometimes if I’m extremely comfy, I announce “I live here now,” even though I obviously don’t. Home used to be my parents house, but I haven’t lived there for five years. Even so, sometimes I get on the Broad Street Line, and I have an overwhelming urge to just keep going north, and end up at “home”. Home can be a place or an idea or a wish.
And that’s just one word with so, so many meanings! The average adult knows 40,000 to 60,000 words (various studies disagree) and the majority of those were learned through context, shaped through context, and used in specific contexts.
So what happens if two people get into a conversation, and they use words for which they each have different definitions, and don’t know it?
Imagine this: you ask your friend to come over around “dinner time,” and you don’t think to make sure you both have the same definition of “dinner time.” So you’re pulling lasagna out of the oven at 6pm, but your friend doesn’t show up until 8pm, and you’re hangry and annoyed.
Imagine this: you tell your new roommate “I don’t like when the dishes sit in the sink for too long,” and your roommate says “yeah definitely,” but for you “too long” is a few days, and for them it’s a few hours.
Imagine this: you tell your partner “I’d like to be exclusive,” and one of you means not having sex with anyone else and another one means not romantically entangled with anyone else.
So what are some of the things you can do to fix non-matched definitions?
You have two options!
1. Be more precise.
Each of the above scenarios could have been fixed if the participants had said “come over around 6pm – that’s when dinner will be ready” or “I get antsy when the sink isn’t clean when I go to bed each night” or “I want us to only have sex with each other.” I’ve written a ton of blog posts about precision in communication, so let’s move on over to…
2. Redefine your language
Last week, a friend and I had the following exchange:
Friend: If you’d like, I could make you spring rolls sometime!
Me: Oh, thank you, but I don’t like spring rolls. I do like summer rolls, though!
Friend: What’s the difference?
Me: Spring rolls are crispy and fried, and summer rolls are wrapped in rice paper, and they’re fresh.
Friend: oh! What you call summer rolls, I call spring rolls too. I call them all spring rolls.
Me: Okay, sure, you could make me fresh spring rolls some time.
Friend: Well, no, I’ll call them summer rolls now. I can make you summer rolls.
Me: You don’t have to do that, I now know what you mean when you say “spring rolls.”
Friend; Sure, but why don’t I just call those summer rolls? That way, we’re using the same language to communicate about this thing, and we’ll understand each other better.
This is a situation in which we both recognized that we had different definitions for the same term, and my friend opted to change their definition in order to improve future communication.
Now, summer rolls aren’t life or death (though I could survive on nothing but summer rolls for at least a month and be happy), but there are a lot of other terms that having different definitions for can cause some serious trouble. Terms like:
The first time you hear one of those words, it might not occur to you that you have different definitions than the person you’re talking to, but *especially* with words like “primary,” “dating,” or “polyamorous” – words that indicate how you want to connect with other people – the moment you realize that you’ve been talking in different directions is usually the moment after things have gone wrong.
Standardizing definitions means that when you use a single word or phrase, you both hear the same thing.
For a while, when I’d tell one partner of mine, “I have a date tonight,” he’d get a pinched look on his face. I found out after several months that to him, a “date” was essentially an audition for a long-term relationship. So every time I went out for drinks with someone that I may or may not have been interested in casually smooching, he was imagining me mixing up my romantic life in a serious way that would affect both of us. We talked it through, and now we’re both on the same page that the word “date” means “spending time with someone in a capacity that won’t necessarily involve physical intimacy or romance, but has a non-zero possibility that either of those might occur.” I could, of course, say that whole phrase every time that I grab a drink with someone, but even for someone who loves precise language as much as I do, having shortcuts is sometimes convenient.
Standardizing definitions can also be difficult – that same partner had (and still has) a lot of emotional baggage connected with the word “date,” so it’s not an instant process of lexical assimilation, but it does mean that the more time you and your partner spend together, the more your vocabulary overlaps in helpful ways.
Try being willing to update your own vocabulary. We’re all very, very tied to the context and meaning under which we learn words, but sharing vocabulary is convenient, and is a loving act. It says something nice about you when you’re willing to say “okay, so this word has always mean X to me, but I know that you always mean Y when you say it, so now I’m going to use this word to mean Y also.”
Don’t get me wrong – precision in language is still my jam, so I will keep advocating for just way, way too many words to make sure your meaning is clear (couldn’t you tell that I love using too many words?). But lexical assimilation is one part of the shared language that long-term relationships create!