Look up the dictionary for tough words like ‘disambiguate’ (remove the ambiguity from) and the results seem meaningful. The definition works as long as you are clear on what ambiguity means. Now, look up the word ambiguity – doubtfulness or uncertainty of meaning or intention. Look up doubt and this is what you get – be uncertain about; hesitate to believe. Look up uncertain and this is the definition – not definitely ascertainable or fixed. See where this is going? We understand words only in the context of the situation they are referred to. Words are the very hounds that lead us on a merry chase and disappear in a puff of smoke just when we get closer. There is no such thing as absolute meaning.
If that seems strange, think of ‘freedom’. We all know what it means, straight off, right? No need to consult a dictionary or that all encompassing fount of human wisdom – Wikipedia. Look it up for ‘freedom’ anyway and you won’t get one set of meanings. You have to define freedom within various contexts to get a more definitive result. You have to deal with disambiguations! In other words, dive deeper. Skimming on the surface is not an option.
So words that refer to very broad contexts – the ones that we use in everyday conversation are the hardest to define! What does the word ‘please’ mean? The answer? It depends on whether you use ‘please’ as an adverb, a verb or an idiom. If that sets you scurrying for the meaning of adverb (any member of a class of words that function as modifiers of verbs or clauses) or verb (any member of a class of words that function as the main elements of predicates) and idiom (an expression whose meaning is not predictable from the usual meanings of its constituent elements)
Are you any wiser? It’s like the dictionary which is a friend in times of need suddenly bares its fangs and hurls abuses leaving you completely befuddled. Don’t bother to look it up. The confusion is not likely to be cleared any time soon. It appears that when you turn to the dictionary to look up the simplest words in the English Language, you get mind benders. When you think you finally know English, or for that matter, any language, you realise you don’t!
Our entire knowledge of letters adding up to words (a unit of language, consisting of one or more spoken sounds or their written representation, that functions as a principal carrier of meaning) is built on shaky, verbose foundations. We need complex definitions for the simplest of words. But simple words aren’t enough to convey shades of meaning. So, we have to layer it with complexity till the skyscraper that it is built on threatens to fall. Let’s construct one starting now. Doubt, uncertain, vague, ambiguous, enigma, illusory, apocryphal are all overlapping words built atop one another. What is the real difference? The contexts we use them in. Academics would not like to use simple words because they seem elementary.
Words are representations of meaning rather than true meaning. The rest is in our expressions and body language – thankfully we seem to understand this universally without the need for an actual language. Otherwise, communication would be impossible.