Working in the advertising technology space, I’m a regular reader of AdExchanger.com, one of the industry’s leading trade publications. I usually read AdExchanger’s daily newsletter on my subway ride to work and I feel like they do a pretty good job of keeping me up to date on the latest industry news and developments (and sometimes, the latest gossip).

Recently, AdExchanger launched a series of articles where they ask industry executives to define new industry terms.

Here are a few examples:

I found these articles very interesting.  Outside of the fact that all of the answers are different (and at times comically discrepant), I also noticed that they were packed with industry jargon, three letter acronyms, and obtuse analogies.  And best yet – all of the respondents seemed equally certain that they had the correct understanding of the term at hand.

All this talk about the definition of words brings me back to the sixth grade.  I was sitting in class listening to a lecture on Noah Webster and the publication of the first American dictionary.  Midway through the class, one of my peers raised their hand and asked inquisitively how Webster came up with the content of his dictionary – how did he know the definitions to all the words?  This question resonated with me as well.  Up to that point in my life, the dictionary had been the source of truth for the meanings of words.  Without a dictionary, how could you possibly write a dictionary?  The catch-22 was almost too much for my 11-year-old brain to handle.  The answer was simple: Webster filled his dictionary with definitions derived from how people used words.

This revelation hit hard and froze in my memory: the definitions of words are dictated by the way the people use them.

In the world of ad tech it’s tough to keep up with all of the new words and terms being invented each year.  In some ways, the pace of innovation forces us all to play the role of Noah Webster and invent the definitions of these words as we hear them.  One big problem here is that it’s tough to be objective.  When I hear a new term, let’s say “Programmatic Buying,” I summon up all of my past connections to these words (as they’ve lived in my life) and conclude the precise definition of the term.  The problem here is that everyone else is doing the same thing and everyone has had different life experiences.  This leads us all to arrive at a different, yet precise, definition of each term – and at the same time leaves us equally certain that we each hold the one true definition.

The whole thing is a bit silly.

In the end the ad tech industry needs to realize what Noah Webster knew 200 years ago – words mean nothing unless we all agree on the meaning.

Programmatic Buying and the Meaning of Words
  • This post reminds me of a comment one of my NYU professors made about language: “It is nothing more than an agreed-upon game.” I think the topic of language/words/definitions is fascinating, regardless of the industry.

  • Dadio

    Drew, as usual you have touched a very important nerve with your post de jour and also, as usual, your SO is right on track. The most important ancient wisdom system I’ve studied uses the point you raise as it’s central issues with regard to effective communication. The founder created a new language comprised of terms designed to avoid any prior connection, for anyone, to define his ideas. The term legomanism (sp)was assigned to his tome. The only other text that I know of that has been assigned the same term is the Bible. After struggling to read either book, I understand a little of why they may be books written before their time. However, your insight about the nature of language is spot on and it’s implications are ubiquitous (sp). Sorry I don’t know how to spell check my comments!

  • Andrew Eifler

    Thanks for contributing here guys! M – I love it. Dad – we’ll have to continue this discussion over Latkes in a few weeks!

  • Welcome to Analytic Philosophy.

    Definitions matter a great deal yes, and it’s interesting to note that perfect translation is very nearly impossible. Language is an imperfect communication system. Quine has some nice notes on that.

    Also, you might want to check out the Oxford English Dictionary, with particular note on the “etymology” sections.

    Check out the current word of the day –

    http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/118489

    It traces the history of usage, with brief in-context quotations.

    P.S. The way analytic philosophy “solves” this is to rely on increasingly formalized language systems, e.g. logic. It’s not a perfect solution, by any means.

    P.P.S. Then you get into problems of ontology.

  • Andrew Eifler

    It’s a good thing that the Oxford English Dictionary exists – otherwise no one would know what a millefleurs is :)

    Re: Ontology – I suppose on some level, every problem begets another problem. But at least it keeps us from getting bored.