In my great state of Victoria right now, we are in the grip of election season. Elections are fertile ground for perpetration of egregious semantic abuse. These crimes are usually committed from behind lecterns or in front of television cameras, in plain daylight.
Depending on where you sit, one of the English language’s greatest features or bugs is this – each of our words seldom has one meaning. Corollary to that, many of our rich lexical tapestry can exist in a quantum-like state. Once uttered, words can be simultaneously over defined and under defined.
The great semanticist Alfred Korzybski explained over/under definition thusly: “[Words] are over-defined (over-limited) by intension, or verbal definition, because of our belief in the definition; and are hopelessly under-defined by extension or facts .... Over/under-defined terms are indeterminate in extensional meaning until they can be specified extensionally through hard data.” (Italics mine.)
Politicians are in the trade of persuasion and words are their stock in that trade. Politicians at the very least must master the art of rhetoric. During whistlestops to Bendigo and Ballarat on Melbourne Cup Day, Leader of the Opposition Daniel Andrews promised $25 million of our public purse toward fixing up the Ballarat Railway Station precinct, should he and the ALP win the State Election on November 29.
Out on the stump, he said “Labor will rescue our TAFE system, pry open the padlocks, and give our kids a chance.”
“Giving our kids a chance” is an overdefinition straining tethers to reality and a woefully inadequate underdefinition in the minds of Mr. Andrews’ detractors.
One can ferret out over/under defined terms by using an “extensionality test.” We must determine whether his words are verifiable in the real world. Giving a kid a chance couldn’t possibly pass extensional muster prima facie. Mr. Andrews and his ALP comrades hope you pour your imagination into that term. He insists you conjure up horrors living under a Napthine Government and all the chanceless kids he intends to churn out day by day, hour by hour.
His opposition of course hopes you will take the mental leap toward a Victoria toiling under a miserable ALP yoke, mentioning that the November 29 election will be about “choice, trust and good decisions.” All nice, snuggly words signifying…well, not a great deal.
During the Liberal/National Coalition campaign launch on Monday, Dr. Napthine mentioned “over the next 24 days Victorians will be left in no doubt it is only the coalition they can trust to keep our finances in order.” To those of us who occasionally use a bit of MYOB or Xero to tally up earnings and expenses, strictures meaning narrowly. The finances of the state must always be in order, from a practical point of view. Does he mean our State’s coffers running a return to surplus, a AAA credit rating or a reduction of taxes to stimulate business? He’s promising all three without promising either.
Of course, credulous individuals will demand some extensionality – i.e., a concrete explanation as to the hows, whats and wheres. If we don’t catch ourselves hearing over/under definitions, we may fall prey to their wily mores. At least in my view, over/under definition lends credence to this; “for those who believe, no proof is necessary and for those who don’t believe, no proof is possible,” as the equally great semanticist Stuart Chase once opined.
Let’s hope we can prove him wrong in thought and in action, each day, week and month.
Perhaps you have encountered such over/underdefinitions yourself? Comment below!