Everyday Words With More Than One Meaning

If you enjoy a good debate about a wide variety of things, like me, you may find that the same old words keep causing problems for the reason that different people are talking about different things.

Without resorting to a highschool-debating sort of argument over definitions, I think it’s worth it, in any discussion, to be as specific as possible about certain words and concepts.


Intensive Growth vs Extensive Growth

This overused term lumps together two very different dynamics, only one of which is really expansion. Intensive growth means using a fixed set of resources with greater efficiency. This productivity growth is rightly understood as the cornerstone of economic progress. As we begin to produce more sustainably, it’ll be because we make technological and other changes that yield efficiencies in the use of natural capital. A shift to organic and local agriculture, passive solar homes, wind power, and other forms of renewable energy will result in genuine productivity increases. Other true efficiencies can be had through information technology and enhanced human capital. To the extent that this kind of growth ocurrs, it will indeed provide opportunity and real wealth.

But most of the time when people (and economists) use the word growth, they are also referring to the process of pulling in new factors of production, or what’s called extensive growth. It is so named because it extends the scope of the market, or capitalist, sector, as it replaces public, household, or other types of production. Gross national product and other measures of output and income conflate intensive and extensive growth. But the extensive type is not really growth. It’s a shift of resources from one economy to another, or the use of a non-renewable asset. Drawdowns of capital from the natural world to the market economy (e.g., felling timber, mining, overfishing, and using fossil fuels) are one example. If enough extensive growth occurs, the economies from which those resources are drawn become depleted or, if the process goes far enough, devastated. Eventually, extensive growth starts to become less profitable because the assets being used up get scarcer. It can eventually lead to blow back, which is now happeneing with the climate system, oceans, and forests.

– Juliet Schor, from Plenitude


Fundamentalist Belief vs Empirical Belief

Mary Roach wrestles with the double meaning of this word when she writes, in the conclusion of Six Feet Over:

Perhaps I’m confusing knowledge with belief. When I say I believe something, I mean I know it. But maybe belief is more subtle. A leaning, not a knowing. Is it possible to believe without knowing? While there are plenty of people who’ll tell you they know God exists, in the same way that they know that the earth is round and the sky is blue, there are also plenty of people, possibly even the majority of people who believe in God, who do not make such a claim. They believe without knowing.

The problem of the two meanings of ‘belief’ tends to come up in religious discussions, and I wish that English didn’t conflate the various uses of this word. Belief in a god or in the potential of your firstborn or in the afterlife is of a different nature to belief derived from the evidence before us (empiricism).

Empiric, or scientific, belief does not require loyalty and faith, merely evidence, and should new evidence arise, belief evaporates.

The noun ‘belief’ isn’t so much the problem, which is inextricably linked to faith much of the time. The problem is with the verb. For example, if I say, ‘I believe it’s going to rain tonight’, that’s only because I see clouds above us, and there is no intended meaning of hope/loyalty/faith or commitment.

Greater minds than mine have already thought long and hard about the nature of belief, in the fields of epistemology and foundationalism.


Mundane Ignorance vs Virulent Ignorance

Before distinguishing between the two different types of ignorance, it’s worth distinguishing between ‘bigotry’ and ‘ignorance’. I am ignorant of the Arabic language, but that doesn’t mean I’m bigoted when it comes to Arabic people and culture, for instance.

Once it’s been established that ‘ignorance’ is what’s really meant, it’s worth it again to distinguish between ‘mundane’ and the ‘virulent’ kind, explained clearly by Ed Brayton in ‘Education Directly Correlates With Acceptance Of Evolution‘:

I think there are two primary reasons why people reject evolution: mundane ignorance (they simply don’t know enough about it to understand it) and virulent ignorance (they have swallowed whole a large set of falsehoods, mostly religious, that make them believe they understand it when they really don’t).


Superstitious Luck vs Stochastic Luck

This word has been bothering me for a long time, ever since one of my (religious) friends started trotting out the phrase ‘I don’t believe in luck’ at any mention of the word. I couldn’t understand why she didn’t believe in luck, when those of us who are able-bodied, well-fed and disease free are so obviously fortunate. (And I consider ‘lucky’ a synonym of ‘fortunate’.)

As it turns out, my friend associates the word ‘luck’ with superstition of the medieval kind.

I still think English could do with a better everyday alternative to luck, but nobody has taken my heartfelt blogpost to heart and invented one yet. Worse luck, whenever I want to make use of the word ‘stochastic‘, I can never remember it, even after writing the post.


Live-and-let-live Respect vs Admiration

I respect (1) your right to live as a shlappy crappy worm-eating bumfkin in a holey moley, but I won’t necessarily respect (2) you for that.


Respect: I do not think it means what you think it means, in which Libby Anne realises that ‘respect for women’ is often confused with ‘protection of women’ in patriarchal circles.


In his book Good Calories, Bad Calories, Gary Taubes quotes a New York Times article entitled “Health Advice: A Matter Of Cause, Effect And Confusion” from the year 2000 in which the author ‘discussed why the public had come to be misled on the benefits of fiber. She suggested that one reason was the loose use of language: “Scientists and the public alike use words like ‘prevents’, and ‘protects against’ and ‘lowers the risk of’ when they are discussing evidence that is suggestive and hypothesis-generating, as well as when they are discussion evidence that is as firm as science can make it.“‘

This confusion reminds me of the ways in which ‘belief’ can be used in two distinctive and non-overlapping ways.


Less Wrong explains — even though I don’t think I understand it entirely — that there’s more than one interpretation of ‘normal’.