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June 18, 2005


Steven Gross

If I remember correctly, in _Fiddler On the Roof_ (both in the movie and in the Shalom Aleichem story on which the movie's based), there's a very funny scene in which this guy is asking for Tevye's daughter's hand but Tevye thinks the guy's come to negotiate the purchase of a farm animal. As the discussion grows ever more perplexing to them both and, in their frustration, increasingly heated, Teyve exclaims, shocking the suitor, "What are you getting so excited for?! She's just a cow!" "How can you say that about her?!" etc., etc.

Jonathan Farrell

This might not be the kind of dispute you're interested in, but there's the 'Who's on first?' exchange between Abbot and Costello.


Thanks. This is the second suggestion of "Who's on first?". I deleted the first, as it's not really a dispute (not even an apparent dispute), just a misunderstanding. Also, I'm really looking for cases that turn on using terms in different but related ways, as opposed to wholly unrelated ways. Steve's nice example from Fiddler on the Roof is probably borderline in these respects, too.

Over e-mail, David Wall suggested Monty Python's Argument Sketch -- "This isn't an argument, it's just contradiction" -- which involves a terminological dispute over "argument". This is a nice example of a case where a terminological dispute matters for practical purposes, and can't simply be resolved by moving to different terms, because it is tied to a previous use of the relevant term in a contract. The same phenomenon arises with laws and promises. Of course the really paradigmatic terminological disputes aren't like this.


There are some examples from Lewis Carroll. For example, in Ch 7 of Through the Looking Glass, Alice tells the king that she saw nobody on the road. He replies that she must have excellent eyes, if she could see Nobody. Later, his messenger says that he passed nobody. The king concludes that Nobody walks slower than the messenger, who is made to feel inadequate.

This example may not be entirely satisfactory, since Carroll was a logician and deliberately constructed the misunderstanding.

David Velleman

William James has a wonderful example in Pragmatism, in which people argue about two squirrels chasing one another around a tree trunk. The question is whether the squirrels are going around each other. James points out that if by "around" you mean "from the north of, to the west of, to the south of ..." and so on, then then answer is yes; whereas if you mean "from the front of, to the side of, to the back of ..." and so on, then the answer is no.

Peli Grietzer

It might to be "Meta" and aware for your needs, bu I think a most perfect example is the arguement between the fictionalized Tristan Tzara and the fictionalized Henry Carr (One a major Dada artist, the second a minor actor) in Tom Stoppard's "Travesties". The arguement revolves around Tzara's claiming to be an artist although he creates nothing of craft and beauty, telling Carr that these days, you don't have to create things of craft and beauty to be an artist, and this conception is merely a relic of older, naive times. In response, Carr say that it is as if Tzara would tell him that he (Tzara) is flying, and upon hearing the objection that he is not at all hovering above the ground, respond that these day one does not have to be off the ground in order to fly, and in fact being above the ground is seen as an old fashioned and reactionary form and flying - Tzara, Carr claims, did not expand the essence of what art is, but merely changed the meaning of the word.

This is a very clumsy paraphrase (probably partial too)- the dialogue in the play (Which I would quote only I don't have it at my disposal at the moment) is short, witty, extravagant, poignant and very funny.

Mike Jacovides

D’Alembert was generally thought to have shown that the vis viva controversy over the proper measure of force was merely verbal.
In the Essay, Locke talks about a dispute over whether what flows through the nerves is a ‘liquor’ and says that he resolved it by asking the disputants what they meant by the word. I think the underlying controversy was over whether animal spirits were gases or liquids, and Locke (in effect) denied that they had the conceptual resources to make the distinction.
Locke also claims that the question of whether a bat is a bird is merely verbal. If you think that that is a legitimate example, then there’s a funny diatribe in Moby Dick against Linnaeus for denying that whales are fish.
You mention legal examples as ‘non-paradigmatic’. Is that because they matter? Or that, even once one realizes that they are terminological, they are not thereby resolved? I suppose that controversies between lexicographers (say, about how the word ‘invidious’ or ‘nauseated’ ought to be defined in the next edition) would be even farther from the paradigm. Maybe only the last two cases are genuine terminological disputes, and the others are cases where people are arguing over facts, and they may become reconciled to one another by making a distinction in meaning.


Thanks for all the suggestions. I'm already planning to use the squirrel example. Interestingly, this source (scroll to 10.E.3) says that the case is discussed in print in 1883, 24 years before the discussion in James's Pragmatism. I guess James nabbed the example and passed it off as autobiography. Maybe the form of the case could arise independently, but the dual appearance of a squirrel is highly suspicious! Unless, I suppose, the 1883 discussion was prompted by James's hunting expedition discussion itself, or vice versa. If anyone knows more about the history here, let me know.

Yes, I meant that legal and lexicographic terminological disputes are non-paradigmatic because they matter. We wouldn't call those mere terminological disputes. One might say that a metalinguistic dispute is one that's explicitly about the usage or meaning of a word. Metalinguistic disputes are fine in their own right, if words are the domain of concern, as in lexicography, linguistics, philosophy of language (though of course even then there can be mere terminological dispute involving words that are not one's primary object of concern). And occasionally, something important in another domain will rest on a metalinguistic dispute: this can happen with laws, contracts, promises, and so on, as well as in domains such as history and literary criticism. But I take paradigmatic (mere) terminological disputes to be cases in which we are concerned with some first-order domain, and where nothing of substance rides on the metalinguistic question.

I'm still looking for more examples, especially from fiction. Does anything from Shakespeare come to mind, for example?

Kelly Trogdon

The 'Nobody' problem mentioned earlier with Lewis Carroll of course also comes up in Homer's Odyssey with Odysseus and the Cylops.

V. Alan White

Because it is so obvious I almost hestitate to mention one of the most famous metalinguistic examples of the transformation of word meaning--but in this centennial year, it's appropriate: Einstein's reformulation of what "time" and "space" mean. Lorentz's equations yield the correct order of observed contraction to account for the Michelson-Morley null result, but only Einstein saw that such contraction is relative to inertial frames. Perhaps what this shows is that what counts as metalinguistic and what is called merely terminological is itself sometimes a close question. (I love the Monty Python argument sketch, BTW!)


The old pseudo-philosophical question of if a tree falls in the woods with no one around does it make a sound is a completely terminological dispute. Depends on what you mean by "making a sound". Not from literature, though.

Here is something from Romeo and Juliet which is not the right kind of example but at least semantics-ish.

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet."


A quick search shows that that passage is in chapter 32 of Moby-Dick.


Take look at Wikipedia page of the word Terrorist. The page is protected from editing until disputes over the meaning have been resolved on the discussion page. Discussion is ongoing in talk page.

Chris Stephens

Dear Dave,

If you haven't already, you might contact Alan Sidelle about his work "Isn't it Semantic?" It's a paper about verbal disputes in philosophy (though I don't recall any literary examples), and, although I don't think he's published it, rumor has it he's working on a book on the topic. He has presented the paper several places, though.

Robert Chiste

Dear Dr. Chalmers,
Not sure if this kind of thing will help, but there was a small misunderstanding on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's science series Quirks and Quarks about the use of the word "density" by an expert who answered a listener's question about why skydivers fall faster than raindrops. Listeners thought "density" while the expert meant "aeordynamic drag density." (Please see bottom of page, Questions: Skydiving and Rain Redux)

Pablo Stafforini

Some that come to mind:


“Should we then call the original replicator molecules ‘living’? Who cares? I might say to you ‘Darwin was the greatest man who has ever lived’, and you might say, ‘No, Newton was’, but I hope we would not prolong the argument. The point is that no conclusion of substance would be affected whichever way our argument was resolved. The facts of the lives and achievements of Newton and Darwin remain totally unchanged whether we label them ‘great’ or not. Similarly, the story of the replicator molecules probably happened something like the way I am telling it, regardless of whether we choose to call them ‘living’. Human suffering has been caused because too many of us cannot grasp that words are only tools for our use[.]”

Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, p. 18


R. M. Hare’s discussion of the missionary “armed with a grammar book” who lands on a cannibal island (The Language of Morals, pp. 146-149) as part of his argument against moral naturalism: a naturalist reading of the situation trivializes disputes about good by interpreting them as disputes about the meaning of ‘good’.


Carlos Nino’s ‘Dworkin and Legal Positivism’ (Mind, 1980, 356, pp. 519-543) is essentially a defense of the thesis that the dispute between legal positivism and legal realism is purely terminological.


“There is a great deal of often heated debate about these matters in the literature of the cognitive sciences, artificial intelligence, and philosophy of mind, but it is hard to see that any serious question has been posed. The question of whether a computer is playing chess, or doing long division, or translating Chinese, is like the question of whether robots can murder or airplanes can fly -- or people; after all, the “flight” of the Olympic long jump champion is only an order of magnitude short of that of the chicken champion (so I’m told). These are questions of decision, not fact; decision as to whether to adopt a certain metaphoric extension of common usage.”

Noam Chomsky, Powers and Prospects, p. 53


The "old pseudo-philosophical question of if a tree falls in the woods with no one around does it make a sound" (commentator "rabern" above) is discussed, if I recall correctly, in John Hospers's An Introduction to Philosophical Analysis.

DC Tedrow

Dr. Chalmers,

You might already have this example, but it's been my experience that there's entirely too much debate over what the word 'atheism' means. Many people take the word to mean "the belief that no gods exist," while others take the term to mean "absense of belief in gods." Clearly, it's one thing to believe that God does not exist, and another to simply not believe in God - for instance, because you have no notion of deities. Needless to say, the second interpretation can generate a great deal of hostility, as it has the implication that newborn babies, people who've never heard of God, etc. are de facto atheists. This is at least one case, I think, where a terminological dispute actually matters.

Of nerdy interest, this quibble actually made the news last December, when it was reported that Antony Flew might actually be a theist. Flew has responded to such allegations in the past, though, by drawing the distinction between negative and positive atheism.

Another example that comes to mind is something of a political one. On the left, you see, (the far left, rather) there's debate over whether so-called "anarcho-capitalists" are really anarchists at all. The problem stems from the fact that these purported "anarcho-capitalists" assume a dictionary definition of 'anarchy' that means simply a society devoid of government. People more familiar with the history of anarchism, on the other hand, insist that the very idea of anarcho-capitalism is nonsense, as anarchism has always been a breed of socialism.

Anyway, that's my two cents. I'm sure analogies can be drawn across the board.

Eddy Nahmias

When I first saw this post, I started thinking Shakespeare (as you mention more recently). And I'm sure there are examples of terminological disputes there, but all the examples I think of are more like puns (e.g., Hamlet's use of "nothing" in the play within a play) or other word plays (e.g., Mercutio's dying speech) or vagueness (e.g., the witches' prophesies to Macbeth) or misunderstandings...

I'll keep thinking about it. In the meantime, there are examples of debates about "zombies" that may be seen as driven by terminological issues. Of course, some people mistake Chalmers' (complete physical replica) zombies for the older breeds of functional or behavioral zombies. But more subtantially, as came up at a paper by Henry Jacoby at the SPP meeting, one may respond to the zombie argument by saying that zombies can't be physically identical if they are not governed by the same natural laws, understanding the natural laws to be all those discovered by the natural sciences. What counts as "natural" and "physical" in these debates then seems to determine what seems conceivable about zombies...

Bob Marks


A few days ago, I picked up a copy of "Why the Mind is not a Computer" by Raymond Tallis. He claims that the whole computer model of the mind is due to words with multiple and incompatable definitions. I posted this on a skeptic website, and one fellow there said that I was using mystical, "mentalistic" language and how could I ignore all the tremendous work that has been done in cognitive science, and how could I think that these scientists would be so sloppy with their definitions.

He also said that a quote Tallis had from one of your books was quoted out of context. Here is the quote"

"If there is experience associated with thermostats, there is probably experience everywhere: wherever there is causal interaction, there is information, and wherever there is information, there is experience. One can find information states in a rock - when it expands and contracts, for example - or even in the different states of an electron. So there will be experience associated with a rock or an electron." The Conscious Mind, (1996) pg. 297

Could you tell me what sort of definitions are being used here for "information" and "experience"?

Thank you.

Bob Marks

Dave Tyrrell

Hello David,

This is an interesting topic and it will help me get something off my chest.

Ever since I developed an interest in reading Immanuel Kant I have been intrigued (read 'found it difficult to make sense of') his use of the word sensibility. He uses it to denote sensible intuition, which is the employment of the five senses in determining an object of outer sense.

In contrast, in her book Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen characterises the wise sister as displaying good sense, and the flighty sister as allowing herself to become a victim of her sensibility (irrationalism?).

This is further exacerbated by my interest in Buddhist studies where we meditate on the breath. In so doing we allow the six sense factors to just flow. Here the heart-mind is the sixth sense. This will help give rise to the sensibility of compassion, where the heart-mind sense is afflicted by neither greed nor aversion.

Wondering how one can make 'sense' of all of this? I'm not sure if Buddha is closer to Jane Austen or Kant.


Building on what DC Tedrow said, I would submit the word "God." It's pretty much in the same league as "consciousness" as far as everybody having their own opinion about what it means.

Not sure if this counts as an example from fiction...

Varol Akman

I realize that this may be only partly relevant -- or even irrelevant -- but I can't help citing it. It is an excellent article:

Anil Gupta, "Meaning and misconceptions," pp. 15-41 in Language, Logic, and Concepts: Essays in Memory of John Macnamara, edited by Ray Jackendoff, Paul Bloom, and Karen Wynn, A Bradford Book, The MIT Press (1999).

Chris Heathwood

The other day my wife and I were debating whether our baby boy has blonde hair or brown hair. My wife says his hair is brown, but I insist that he has blonde hair.

It seems to me that this case may contain both a verbal dispute and a genuine dispute. The dispute over our boy's hair color is verbal. If we agreed to mean the same thing by 'blonde hair' and 'brown hair', this dispute would be resolved. But another dispute is over what, in fact, the words 'blonde hair' and 'brown hair' really mean. If she claims, "The meanings of 'blonde hair' and 'brown hair' are such that our boy is characterized by the latter and not the former," and I deny this sentence, then it seems to me that this dispute is genuine. It's a genuine dispute about what certain words mean.

Varol Akman

re: blonde vs brown

my big dictionary says:

blond: property of the hair: light auburn
blonde: a person with blond hair

since it also defines auburn as a yellowish- or brownish-white color, both you and your wife seem to have a point. post a picture of your baby boy on the net and take a vote would be my suggestion :-)


Thanks for all the further suggestions. I now have a draft version of the talk, which I presented in a dry run yesterday. I used the squirrel, Stoppard, Moby Dick, and Monty Python examples, and mentioned some of the others along the way. Other suggestions are still welcome. As before, I'm still especially interested in good examples from fiction.

Re the blonde/brown case: this is an example of a common phenomenon, where one has a terminological disagreement about a first-order matter (the baby's hair color), grounded in a substantive disagreement about a metalinguistic matter (the meanings of 'blonde' and 'brown' in our community). One might choose to say the dispute is not terminological because of the presence of the substantive metalinguistic dispute, but I prefer to use "terminological dispute" for any (apparent) first-order dispute that is wholly grounded in a metalinguistic difference or dispute. Of course that is itself a terminological issue!

Re "information" and "experience", see this paper for a start.

Peli Grietzer

Do you intend to upload the draft or some version of the talk? I think a lot of readers might are curious to see how the suggestions were integrated.

Peter Ludlow

Hey Dave, if you are still collecting examples, my favorite comes from the many terminological disputes that arise on sports talk radio. When _Sports Illustrated_ came out with its 50 top athletes of the 20th Century there was a big debate on WFAN about whether the horse Secretariat should be on the list (everyone else on the list was human). A lot of people argued that it couldn't be an athlete -- its a horse, but the announcer insisted, that it was really really good, as if that made up for the horse part.

Amy Kind

This probably isn't a 'mere' terminological dispute in the sense that you mean, but there's an article in Counterpunch that discusses a current dispute over the meaning of the word "fixing" in the Downing Street memo. (See

A related kind of dispute arose over the use of the word "Gulag" in the Amnesty International report on Guantanamo Bay - see, e.g., this Washington Post op-ed (

Finally, I keep thinking of the infamous line from Bill Clinton: "it depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is."

rob rupert

Here's an interdisciplinary example: debates about innateness often seem to be terminological; it doesn't take long to generate a list of ten different meanings that have been given to 'innate', and it seems pretty likely that this variety accounts for more than one disagreement about nativism.

Also, back a few years there were many pointless exchanges regarding when the new millennium began. It may be that the folks on one side were simply wrong, but there's a case to be made here for mere terminological disagreement.


OK, here it is. You'll see that a few examples from this discussion are incorporated, and others were referenced orally. The written version might end up with more. Thanks to everyone for their suggestions. Of course any further suggestions, and comments on the paper, are welcome.

anne newstead

The dispute between gradualists and absolutists over knowledge may well be terminological. Gradualists claim that knowledge comes in degrees and can improve as one acquires more justification for a belief, while absolutists think that once a certain threshold of justification is reached, knowledge does not improve. Gradualists appear to identify knowledge with understanding and coherence, while absolutists think the most important thing about knowledge is being right. Both sides could agree that understanding is gradual but being right (or having true belief) is absolute.


A nice example of a dispute that is terminological, and yet desperately heated: the dispute over the claim "Blacks cannot be racist (in US society)".

The claim looks unbelievable, if 'racist' means 'person harboring racial bigotry' -- plenty of racially-bigoted blacks out there, after all. But I take it what the proponents of the claim mean is that blacks cannot be advantaged by the systematic race-based oppression found in the US -- after all, blacks are the victims par excellence of this oppression. This is a use of 'racist' to mean something like 'beneficiary of race-based oppression'. And, 'racist' understood that way, the claim makes sense. So there's an individual use (bigotry) and an institutional use (oppression).

Of course, the reason this dispute is taken seriously, despite its manifest triviality, is that 'racist' is supposed to play a certain role: namely, picking out individuals with contemptible, blameworthy attitudes. And arguably the institutional use can't successfully play this role.

Geoff Pynn

Probably too late to be useful, but this morning's New York Times editorial page advocates regimenting English so that Pluto doesn't count as a planet:

"There is no real debate that the four terrestrial planets - Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars - and the four gaseous giants - Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune - deserve their status as planets. But scientists have long been uneasy about including Pluto, an icy ball smaller than our Moon, whose orbit is more eccentric than the others and tilts in a different plane.

"Try as they might, scientists could not come up with a definition that would retain Pluto as a planet without requiring that scads of other objects be deemed planets as well. Nor could they satisfy the legions of space enthusiasts who remain certain from their grade school lessons that there are nine planets - no more, no less.

"So now Dr. Brown proposes that scientists give up the battle and accept a cultural definition of what a planet is. It's either the nine planets we learned about in grade school, or those nine plus any new-found object orbiting the Sun that turns out to be bigger than Pluto. He opts for the latter approach on the theory that most people, deep down, accept that definition. This definition would also, of course, qualify Dr. Brown for the historical footnotes as the discoverer of a new planet.

"Our own preference is to take a cleaner way out by dropping Pluto from the planetary ranks. Scientists may well discover many more ice balls bigger than Pluto, and it's a safe bet that few in our culture want to memorize the names of 20 or more planets. Far better to downgrade Pluto to the status of an icy sphere that was once mistakenly deemed a planet because we had not yet discovered its compatriots on the dark fringes of the solar system."

Gregg Rosenberg

Hi Dave, this is from Slate today, talking about insurance companies and their likely response to Hurricane Katrina. Strikes me as a great, pure verbal dispute:

"And in cases where they are explicitly on the hook, insurance companies can be counted on to resist—even in the most emotion-laden cases. After 9/11, when Larry Silverstein, who owned the lease on the Twin Towers, tried to collect on his insurance policy, insurers argued that the two attacks were a single event, thus capping the amount Silverstein could receive. Silverstein took them to court, and last December convinced a jury that the two plane crashes were two distinct events."

Shaun Johnston

I have just completed a book manuscript that includes an edited email correspondence between an ardent materialist/physicalist and myself, a secular dualist making all the usual objections. It runs about 20 manuscript d.spaced pages, abstracted from 100 pages of argument, itself winnowed down from 400 pages of original posts. I use it as a primer on how the controversy involving intelligent design and natural selection looks from the viewpoint of a lay secular dualist. I think we take on pretty classic positions. I can email you the 20 page chapter.

Todd  Stark

There is an interesting example in an article by physicist David Mermin in Labinger and Collins' "The One Culture?" It isn't quite a terminological dipute, but does effectively point out how different use of language fosters disagreement. It isn't entirely terminological in the sense of most other examples here because it is nuances of the use of various technical terms that is in dispute rather than the meaning of a single decsive term. Mermin recognizes that his sometimes rancorous dispute with Collins over relativity boils down to different ways of using various technical terms.

Eray Ozkural

Not from Shakespeare, but I think there is a valid example concerned with a (not so bright) approach to philosophy of psychology.

I think this page is entering a terminological dispute very quickly.


Dear Dave:

I found this while reading Dostoyevsky's "The Possessed" I'm not completely sure it helps, for perhaps it isn't the kind of terminological dispute you have in mind (or perhaps it isn't a td at all?). I understand this might be rather late, but here it is:

“I'm only here for a minute. Still, I'll sit down. Health is all very well, but I've come to remind you of our agreement. The appointed time is approaching ... in a certain sense,” he concluded awkwardly.
-“What agreement?”
-“How can you ask?” Pyotr Stepanovitch was startled and even dismayed.
-“It's not an agreement and not an obligation. I have not bound myself in any way; it's a mistake on your part. ”
-“I say, what's this you're doing? ” Pyotr Stepanovitch jumped up.
-“What I choose.”
-“What do you choose?”
-“The same as before.”
-“How am I to understand that? Does that mean that you are in the same mind?”
-“Yes. Only there's no agreement and never has been, and I have not bound myself in any way. I could do as I like and I can still do as I like.” Kirillov explained himself curtly and contemptuously.
“I agree, I agree; be as free as you like if you don't change your mind.” Pyotr Stepanovitch sat down again with a satisfied air. “You are angry over a word.”


Dear Dr. Chalmers

I was working on an assignment for my logic course and we had to come up with examples of terminological disputes, I've got one which I hesitate to post as it seems to be very silly...still,

Jane: John's father made hay while the sun shone!
Amy: I've never known Jhon to shine, he's too dull.

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