Defining words- Any of you experience the same?

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firemonkey
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20 Jun 2021, 4:46 am

First off I'll admit this is perhaps trivial, but I'd really like your feedback nonetheless.

I can use a word in context when speaking or writing. Given a list of possible descriptions of a word I'll very often choose the right one. Comprehension skills are way above average. However if asked to describe a word I can really flounder.

I had just seen this as a 'me' thing, but have come across a couple of autistic people,on another forum, who experience the same thing(or they have an autistic friend that does).


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MrsPeel
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20 Jun 2021, 6:15 am

Having trouble explaining the meaning if a word, is that it?
If so, yes, I don't seem to do so well at that.

I believe the reason is that I see every word as having a unique meaning and therefore struggle to define it using other words which have a similar, but slightly different meaning. The complexity of having to explain in which way the word is similar but in which way it is different - in other words the contextual differences - is overwhelming.



firemonkey
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20 Jun 2021, 7:36 am

^ Yes that's it! Trouble explaining the definition/ meaning of a word.


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Mountain Goat
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20 Jun 2021, 8:02 am

I was using words until going back a decade or two ago, I was caught out a few times because people asked me what I meant and I had no answer, because I was using these words in what I assumed to be their context because I normally saw them in that context though I did not know what the words actually mean.

Now because I was caught out, I started to stop using any word that I found myself using unless I understood what it means, and I found my vocabulary largely reduced.

And the problem I have is, that even if a new word is explained to me, I rarely remember the explained meaning, so I find that I can't use it out of the fear of being caught out like I have been in the past, as I don't want to be seen to look stupid.

It came to me about a year ago that the main reason why I can not pick up other languages is because of the way my brain works, and this is on part due to the need to visualize things so I can understand them.
Now I can go back to a scene when I was six, where I was being taught how to read with the Janet and John books we had in school, and the teacher, Miss Rees was reading to me the words and I had to read them, but then she did not understand why I had to spend time looking at the pictures in the book to understand what was happening... It was like I was getting the information input into my mind through the pictures and not so much through the words... And as the teacher did not understand this so much, she wanted to turn the page before I was ready as I needed time to stare at the pictures to understand what was going on in the book. (And by doing this, I was getting a lot more out of the book then the words said!)



firemonkey
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20 Jun 2021, 8:32 am

^ That's interesting. I have aphantasia so don't think in pictures.


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Joe90
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20 Jun 2021, 9:34 am

A lot of people have trouble explaining some words. Often I've asked someone what something means and they think for a moment then say they can't really explain it.


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naturalplastic
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20 Jun 2021, 10:08 am

It happens to everyone sometimes.

A coworker guy from the Dominican Republic asked me "what do you Americans mean by such and such". I have forgotten what word it was -some slang term. Lets call it "WordX". I knew the term well but...just couldnt explain it. Found myself saying "wordX means.... it means....it means...WORDX!". :lol:

Another time was in college. Was hanging with a friend from India. He asked me what the word "exotic" means. I couldnt explain it off of the top of my head. Years later, now that its too late, I think of ways I shoulda explained it, like "it means something that is foreign, but foreign in a way that is enticing, or attractive...could be music, could be food, or it could be...a person of the opposite sex...like that".

A shrink asked ME to define the word "consume" as part of an IQ test. And I couldnt find words to define it,but I knew full well what it meant...finnally I said "the word just conjures up a visual image of an amoeba engulfing another cell and eating it up". He replied "so it means 'to use something up'?" And I said "yeah!". And he jotted down as a right answer, and went on.



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20 Jun 2021, 3:42 pm

Consume - I tried, and thought of "take up," felt that was hopelessly inaccurate, looked it up, and found out that's pretty much the official definition. To me the "proper" definition doesn't really explain the word's meaning very well, though I can't offhand do any better, and I suspect it's a hard one.

I think if somebody asked me what a word meant, I'd want to do it by giving examples rather than trot out a crisp sentence. So for "consume" I might say "well, if you're eating or drinking, that's consuming - anything where you're taking something inside you or using something up, and marketing people use the word "consumer" to describe people who buy stuff." It's not a word I'd use much myself. I'd use words such as eat, drink, use up, buy.

I'm not sure it's a particularly common skill to be able to define words quickly and accurately in the way a dictionary does. I'm probably mildly good at it, but not great. As dictionaries are usually to hand, I don't see much point becoming good at it. Like I say, I can explain the meaning of a word in my own way, but I can't imagine many real-life situations where I'd need to.



naturalplastic
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20 Jun 2021, 4:46 pm

MrsPeel wrote:
Having trouble explaining the meaning if a word, is that it?
If so, yes, I don't seem to do so well at that.

I believe the reason is that I see every word as having a unique meaning and therefore struggle to define it using other words which have a similar, but slightly different meaning. The complexity of having to explain in which way the word is similar but in which way it is different - in other words the contextual differences - is overwhelming.


Thats true. Wrongplanet had a member who was a linguistics professor, and he asserted that "there are no true synonyms". I agree that even words of similar meaning tend to have different shades of meaning.

But if youre talking a foriegner or an impaired person sometimes its okay to just give a near synonym for a word they ask about. Dont get too hung up about the subtly unless its important for them to know.