Sharpening definitions

From the very literal…to the metaphorical… to somewhere in between

Sometimes, it is very easy to see why we name things a certain way.
Sometimes, the terms for things can be pretty literal.

Consider, for example, the silky anteater.

It is called that because its fur is soft and smooth – one of the definitions of silky – and, in addition to that, this animal eats ants.

Often though, the names we give for things – whether these are people, places, objects, vehicles, types of fashion, or wild animals – are not that evident.

A tale of two jackets

“It was the summer, and we were creating a film. We were filming a story based on a trip to Alaska, and we were dressed as fishermen and women, when suddenly… »

“…a yellow jacket flew into the house through an open window”.

There’s what looks like a strange sentence

Perhaps you were reading those sentences about the filming and wondering if jackets could levitate there, or if the characters were in some sort of fantasy universe.

However… if we know the context is in this world, today, then it’s time to look for more clues in other sentences.

“ ‘Get rid of it, Sophie!’ said Paul. ‘Yellow jackets are horrible!’ ”

Ok, so far, it could still be about clothing (albeit clothing that somehow manages to fly.)

“’They buzz all over the place, and sting you… they’re awful, yellow jackets!’ Paul continued.”

Right… so this yellow jacket makes a buzz sound when flying, and can use a stinger to inject you with venom. We can conclude that it’s unlikely that any coat or rainjacket would do that. So from the buzz and the sting, we can conclude that this yellow jacket is a wasp-type insect.

“Sophie got out some jam, opened the jar, and put it on the outside window ledge. Attracted by the sugary jam, the yellow jacket flew back out of the house and onto the jam.”

So whilst a yellow jacket could be this….

…it could also be the sort of insect below.

(the name of this particular type of insect is a metaphor; it looks like the insect is wearing a coat of yellow, hence the name ‘yellow jacket’)

Of course, if we have the necessary training in zoology and English, we might recognise a term already. Often, though, we’ll encounter new words, whether and when that’s the case, defining the new word is important.

When expanding vocabulary, it is worth considering different meanings of words and expressions.

The importance of good definitions

It’s worth going into more detail about ideas of definition. Consider the two very different defintions of “palm”.

One type of palm is the front of the hand.

Another type of « palm » is a sort of tree that grows in warm climates.

It’s possible to go further still in the idea of definition, since it’s important to know what something is… and what something isn’t. Defining things is important.

The definition of this particular image… could be sharper.

The part of the palm tree in the orange square is magnified in the corresponding image underneath.

This image does not come from the best resolution – that is to say – not the best image quality.

Consequently, it is difficult to distinguish clearly certain parts of the image.

If you look closely at the areas marked with crosses…

…it’s hard to distinguish what is what. In the part of the image under the red crosses, is that part of the sky?
Perhaps it is. Alternatively, it could be part of a leaf.

If only there were a way to see things more clearly…
…that way, we could make out what things are… it goes, something did happen to allow us to see things more clearly.

Its first broadcasts occured in 1989 in Japan (by the national television network provider, HDK)…
…in 1996 in the U.S. (by the WRAL North Carolina network)…
…and in 2004 in Europe (by the Belgium-based broadcaster Euro1080.)

This was… HD.

With that, it has become possible to see what is the tree, and what is the sky…

Objects became more clearly defined, which is logical. After all, HD stands for High Definition.

What it has also (perhaps unintentionally) created is a nice way of defining “definition”… with benefits for memorising new words and terms and incorporating these into our active knowledge (that is to say, enabling us to use these words and terms ourselves).

As another example of this, take a look at the part of the tree in the orange box below:

Are those bits of the tree in the centre of the purple box leaves?Perhaps they are. Then again, perhaps they aren’t.

By contrast, with a higher defintion, things get clearer again.

Although whether they’re edible or poisonous is a good question… the green bits are the tree’s fruit.

What’s more, with Ultra HD, as you see in the picture below, they get even clearer.

To top it off, with 8K HD, again below, they get even clearer still.

(It is rare that someone would analyse these images up so close while actually watching a television programme… normally, to protect our eyesight, we would keep a minimum distance, and so it would be impossible to distinguish any pixels in even the HD picture, let alone Ultra or 8K HD.)

Nevertheless, the definition in such phrases as HD (High Definition) or SD (Standard Definition) provides us with a memorable way to define defintion.

In that way, we have a memorable way to think about what definitions are: just as definitions talk about what things are, they talk about what things are not.

We can see what is part of the palm tree, and what is not. We can see that the round green objects are part of the palm tree, that they are not leaves, but fruit.

The journey, though, to define things does not stop there. Defining things takes on another level, as whether those fruit are edible or not depends on what kind of palm that is. Without knowing if it’s a fishtail palm… a palm with date-like fruit….or a betel nut palm… it’s worth remembering that palm’s fruit could be inedible!

A sharper resolution only takes us so far; additional knowledge of botany will be necessary to define what kind of palm it is.

There you have the importance of defining things well!

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