Words (And Concepts) Without Meaning

What’s the definition of “bitch”? Type it into google and you’ll learn that it’s the term for a female dog, fox, or otter, and a derogatory insult as well. Ask one of your friends, though, and it’s possible you can get back a whole array of answers, ranging from simple exclamations to a signifier of difficulty. These definitions, clearly, vary wildly, and can even flat out contradict each other, as shown by the fact that as an exclamation, forms of "bitch" can express either anger or excitement. It’s even, in some situations, come to mean the exact opposite of its original derogatory significance, as it’s not uncommonly used among friends to address each other jokingly and affectionately.

With this dizzying array of often-contradictory meanings, “bitch” may well have become the first word in our language to have no real definition at all. Ask yourself, if you will, a question: if I were to use a sentence with “bitch” or a form of "bitch" in it, what would would I be using that word to express? What object would I be referring to, or what kind of statement would I be trying to make? In reality, there’s no way to know, no way to even narrow it down, without referring to the context of its use. It's impossible to overstate how different this is from the vast majority of words in the English language, words like “computer” or “heavy” or “sprint.” Unlike these, "bitch" has no corresponding mental image for us, no ability to impart impact without context around it. “Bitch” has no meaning.

There are concepts like this as well, concepts that have been used so many different ways they have no true definition. Perhaps the most powerful of these? “Manhood.” On the one hand, whenever we say it there’s something we’re trying to elucidate: the difference between children and adults of our species' males. There are so many different ways to “be a man,” though, that this concept is practically meaningless. According to different sources, the defining trait of manhood could be that real men don’t cry, that real men love women, that real men are always ready to come to blows to get their way or make a point. For all these definitions though, completely contrary one exists, that real men aren’t afraid to cry, or are secure loving whoever it is they love, or don’t feel the need to engage in physical conflict until absolutely necessary. Still other definitions exist for this concept as well, meanings that center around honesty or learning or willpower. When I tell you that someone is a “real man,” there’s no way to know what quality I’m pointing to without reading into the context of my statement. Manhood has no intrinsic meaning.

And perhaps it shouldn't There might be nothing more dangerous, after all, than the assumption that all members of any group must act the same way, must be defined by the same qualities. This generalization is exactly what drives us to fear, mistrust, and even hate each other, after all. So yes, the concept of “manhood” is one without any practical definition. If I tell you to “be a man,” I could be exhorting you to do anything from toughening up to showing love for those you care about to honestly admitting to wrongdoing. There’s nothing determined about adulthood, nothing about being a man that’s set in stone, and that’s amazing, because it allows all kinds of men to exist. So what does it mean to be one? Well, I guess that’s up to you.

With excitement and optimism,

Alex