What are Words Worth?

By Stuart Boardman, KPN

“Words are stupid, words are fun 

Words can put you on the run.”*

Many years ago I learned, at my own cost, how easily words can be re- and/or misinterpreted. The story itself is not important. What matters is that a bunch of us were trying to achieve something we thought was worthwhile, thought we’d achieved it but got conned by someone more cunning with words than we were. The result was pretty much completely the opposite result to what we intended.

I’ve spent a lot of time since then trying to find ways of tying down meanings so that, if someone disagreed with me, it would at least be clear to everyone what we were disagreeing about.. That basically involved looking for a very precise choice of words and offering a definition of what I was using them for. Nothing very original there. It’s the same motivation which leads us to create a glossary or taxonomy.

Which brings me to the problem I want to address: Definitions can actually get in the way of the discussion. In the professional world, inhabited by pretty much anyone likely to be reading this, we tend to borrow words from natural language to describe very specific concepts: concepts which we have made specific. Sometimes we borrow these words from other disciplines, which may themselves have specialized out of natural language. Sometimes the usage is often a form of metaphor or analogy, but with familiarization that fact becomes forgotten and it becomes just another word we take for granted.

Recently I had a (friendly) public debate with Tom Graves about the meaning of the word entropy, which we used separately from each other to characterize related but different phenomena affecting enterprises. We both used it as an analogy or parallel and we based our analogies on different definitions of the terms within the world where it originated, physics. These definitions are not contradictory in physics but are pretty divergent when used as analogy or metaphor. Tom and I are friends, so the discussion didn’t become rancorous, but we have yet to achieve a satisfactory resolution – at least not on an agreeable definition.

Also recently, I have witnessed a debate in the Enterprise Architecture community (on LinkedIn) about the meaning of the words business and enterprise. These are words common in natural language whereas here they were being used in the context of our specific discipline. In that context it was a relevant and perhaps even important discussion. The meaning you associate with them, unless you believe they are semantically identical, has a significant impact on your view of Enterprise Architecture (EA).

Unfortunately, the debate rather quickly developed into a heated discussion about who had the correct definition of each of these words. All kinds of “experts” from the worlds of economics and management science were quoted along with various dictionaries, which only served to prove that almost any position could be justified. The net result was that the substantial discussion got lost in definition wars. And that’s a pity because there were some important differences in perspective, which could have been useful to explore and from which everyone could have learned something – even if we all stuck to our own definitions of the words.

We may not be doing anything obscure with these words in EA, but we’re still giving them a very specific context, which may not be identical to what the man on the number 9 bus (or a professor in a business school) thinks of. If even then we are able to give them different, reasonable definitions, it’s clear that we should be seeking to focus on the underlying discussion, as intended/defined by the person who started the discussion. Otherwise we’ll never get beyond a meta-discussion.

So how can we get away from the meta-discussions? To come back to Tom and me and entropy, the discussion about the definition of the word was useful to the extent that it helped me understand what he was getting at. (Beyond that it was of no value at all in the context of the substantive discussion, which is why we parked it.) Later on, Tom observed that the important thing in a discussion about terms is the process of discussion itself. Interestingly my partner made the identical point last night and she comes from an entirely different discipline as a healthcare professional: What’s useful in such a discussion is not the statement we make but the story we tell. A statement is static. A story is dynamic. So then, instead of saying “my definition of entropy is X. What’s yours?” we say, “I use the word entropy to refer to the following phenomena/behaviors. What things are you trying to capture?” We’ve pushed that definition out of the way. Later on we may come back to it, if we think at that point it would be useful to tie the term down.

Another recent discussion on Ruth Malan’s Requisite Variety site reminded me of the importance of visuals – sketching something. In fact I’m seeing an increasing number of people talking about visual thinking You don’t have to be a great artist to sketch something out, which is a good thing because I can’t draw to save my life. You just need to realize that in your head you are very often visualizing something and not necessarily a physical object. I think that’s particularly true when we use analogy or metaphor. And how often do we talk of seeing something in our “mind’s eye”? Let’s get that vision out there, show what we think is going on and how things affect each other. Take a look at that discussion on Ruth’s site and check out the links provided by Peter Bakker.

Of course definitions have their uses and are important if a group of people developing standards need to agree on how terms will be used. The group also wants other people to understand what they’re trying to say. They hope that, even if they know another reasonable definition, they’ll accept this one for the purposes of the discussion. But sometimes people are sufficiently uncomfortable with your definition – with your use of the word – that it becomes a barrier to the discussion. That’s what happened in the enterprise/business argument I mentioned before.

Let’s think about the term enterprise again. TOGAF™ has a clear definition of enterprise, which I happily use in discussions with people who know TOGAF. There are, however, people who for perfectly good reasons have a problem with a government or non-profit organization being called an enterprise or who believe the term only applies to organizations above a certain size and complexity. There are also people for whom an enterprise is necessarily identical to an organization. I personally tend to a much more generous definition. What am I going to do when I’m talking to those whose definition of an enterprise is different from mine? Should I try to convince them my definition is right or should I say “OK, fine, we’ll use your definition but let’s talk about all those other things I wanted to include and try to understand how they affect our organization.”

I need to draw pictures. A picture doesn’t force anyone to agree on a definition. It provides a canvas (there we go, another common visual metaphor) on which to place the elements of the discussion. This picture, courtesy of Tom Graves, provides an example of such a canvas. You don’t have to agree on a definition to understand what is being said. And there’s an accompanying story. Then we can investigate what it was I was trying to say and whether we can agree about the what, how and why of mechanisms in play. That doesn’t mean they’re going to agree but at least we’ll be arguing about the actual substance and there’s a fair chance we’ll all learn from the process. The label we pin on it is then a secondary consideration.

“Words in papers, words in books

Words on tv, words for crooks

Words of comfort, words of peace

Words to make the fighting cease

Words to tell you what to do

Words are working hard for you

Eat your words but don’t go hungry

Words have always nearly hung me.”*

*From Wordy Rappinghood by Tom Tom Club (1981)

Stuart Boardman is a Senior Business Consultant with KPN where he co-leads the Enterprise Architecture practice as well as the Cloud Computing solutions group. He is co-lead of The Open Group Cloud Computing Work Group’s Security for the Cloud and SOA project and a founding member of both The Open Group Cloud Computing Work Group and The Open Group SOA Work Group. Stuart is the author of publications by the Information Security Platform (PvIB) in The Netherlands and of his previous employer, CGI. He is a frequent speaker at conferences on the topics of Cloud, SOA, and Identity. 


  1. Great article – and one that raises some very important points as we encounter the daily digital avalanche of human thought and action. The meaning of words in the context they are used and by whom has always been a challenge.

    Lewis Carol humorously depicted the issues: “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.”
    “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you CAN make words mean so many different things.”
    “The question is”, said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”

    Not so long ago I shared the same thought that definitions by themselves were still insufficient for conveying the intended meaning, and even providing contextual markers still led to ambiguities and miscommunication. At the time I tried to establish an Iconographic component to the enterprise set of definitions to accompany the already extant but incomplete vocabulary. In other words provide images and diagrams as an additional dimension to meaning.

    The budget never covered that extension, but I continue to explore meaning through a variety of approaches including memetics, which seems to come closer than many branches of linguistics to how information is acquired and communicated. The part of your article that resonates with my findings is the visual thinking. In particular that meaning is almost rebus-like and words are only the transports of thoughts generated by . the communicator.

    I like your addition of a story as an additional contextual component, as it adds depth to the context and suggests that there is much much more to our communications than the basic words used within our messages.

    Your article also raises a cautionary flag on those endeavors that claim solutions to identifying influence and intent. As humans we haven’t yet fully solved the meaning conundrum, which means that for the foreseeable future we will be unable to program machines to do so either.

  2. Inspiring! Words are not only worth something, but Words can Create New Worlds, believe it or not. The “meaning” concept which, as Peter states, isn’t yet fully solved is true. But the beauty of meaning is that it is already partly solved. For example in language.

    The meaning of the exact words that you now read in this sentence can be understood because: a) it’s indvidual letters are part of an established, well-known alfabet and b) when combined together in a certain sequence we call a “word”, the individual words can be often be very well understood.

    But not all “words” are precise enough yet to communicate intended meaning from sender to receiver. These are often the words which denote a certain collection or grouping or set of something. Just to name a few collections/groupings: city, village, province, state, country, branche, sector, budget etc. These are usually well understood concepts.

    But we also have words in our language that denote some kind of grouping or collection or set but are quite vague because they are generalizations. For example: Business, enterprise, architecture, system, technology etc. These type of words can mean all kinds of things to all kinds of people.

    And it is exactly in these type of (over)generalized words that we sometimes need something additional (for example visual thinking) to help us understand what we mean. Sometimes leading to definition discussions.

    By the way, in NLP there exists a concept called “mow” which means “model of the world” which deals with exactly the interpretation questions aroud the meaning of something. It’s part of the NLP Communication Model which can help in solving semantic areas.

  3. It occurs to me that there is value in stopping to ask what someone means by their use of a term rather than assuming that we both mean the same thing. Serendipity from ambiguity?

  4. Stuart, your interesting blog reminded me of the later Wittgenstein’s “Philosophical Investigations”. Your basic statement is: “Definitions can actually get in the way of the discussion.” They can especially if the one defining supposes to refer to some sort of an objective state out there.

    In his later work Wittgenstein realizes that when investigating meaning, the philosopher must “look and see” the variety of uses to which the word is put. In giving the meaning of a word, any explanatory generalization should be replaced by a description of use (see remark of Gene Hughson).

    In order to address the countless multiplicity of uses, their un- fixedness, and their being “part of an activity”, Wittgenstein introduces the key concept of ‘language-game’.

    It is here that Wittgenstein’s rejection of general explanations, and definitions based on sufficient and necessary conditions, is best pronounced. Instead of these symptoms of the philosopher’s “craving for generality”, he points to ‘family resemblance’ as the more suitable analogy for the means of connecting particular uses of the same word. There is no reason to look, as we have done traditionally—and dogmatically—for one, essential core in which the meaning of a word is located and which is, therefore, common to all uses of that word.

    For an utterance to be meaningful it must be possible in principle to subject it to public standards and criteria of correctness. For this reason, a private- language, in which “individual words … are to refer to what can only be known to the person speaking; to his immediate private sensations is not a genuine, meaningful, rule-governed language. The signs in language can only function when there is a possibility of judging the correctness of their use, “so the use of [a] word stands in need of a justification which everybody understands”

    Wittgenstein adopts the term ‘grammar’ in his quest to describe the workings of this public, socially governed language, using it in a somewhat idiosyncratic manner. Grammar, usually taken to consist of the rules of correct syntactic and semantic usage.

    So to conclude: when discussing meaning we have to refer to usage and take into account syntactic and semantic rules governing the use.

  5. “Thinking in pictures,” Sigmund Freud once wrote, “stands nearer to unconscious processes than does thinking in words, and is unquestionably older than the latter both ontogenetically and phylogenetically.” There is, in other words, something primordial, something foundational, about thinking visually.
    For Wittgenstein, to think, to understand, was first and foremost to picture. In conversation with his friends, he several times referred to himself as a “disciple” or “follower” of Freud and many people since have been extremely puzzled what he might have meant by this.
    In his Tractatus appears the distinction between what can be said and what has to be shown. “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent,” runs the famed last sentence of the book but, as Wittgenstein made clear in private conversation and correspondence, he believed those things about which we have to be silent to be the most important. (Compare this with the logical positivist Otto Neurath, who, echoing Wittgenstein, declared: “We must indeed be silent – but not about anything.”)
    To grasp these important things, we need not to reason verbally, but rather to look more attentively at what lies before us. “Don’t think, look!”
    But, as Goethe said: “The hardest thing to see is in front of our eyes”

  6. I may just be lucky in the people who’ve responded so far but it seems to me I’ve kind of proved my own point. Or rather they have proved it for me.

    I provided a narrative and, to the extent necessary a personal, context for what I was trying to say. Figuratively speaking I provided the canvas I was talking about. 5 people have been able to introduce their own additional insights and background (some of it also personal) which enables us all to continue the discussion and to learn from each other. No one found it necessary to argue with my choice of words, because I didn’t oblige anyone to use those.

    I have learned new things already from this discussion. Thanks guys. More comments welcome!

  7. Sorry for this late response. However, it is too relevant for what we do at TOG to stop here.

    I have read the blog and its comments. Very interesting comments and remarks. And I am triggered from these as well.

    In my humble view, without having studied the classics the following are important points.

    Definition and context are interdependent and cannot be considered loose from each other.

    Definitions are useful when a group of people need to communicate about something. Hence, definitions do not have to be objective as long as it serves the interest of the group. It is the interest of the group that determines a definition and it is useful or not. In other words, the context of the group and their way of thinking.

    When people communicate they try to convey a meaning or insight. If that thinking is not homogeneous communication is difficult. In that case it is useful to have the conversation about the way of thinking or its context, or the problem one tries to resolve.

    If the attitude is not positive in this conversation, but win-loose one may get stuck and accomplish the common interest. If the attitude is positive – win-win – the conversation enhances each other’s understanding and hence the communication.

    Related to TOGAF: we try to communicate the implications of the implication of a strategy and vision for the structure of a certain organization. Hence, we need a vocabulary to explain to each other what the context, vision and strategy of that conversation is. The vocabularies we agree on enhance the effectiveness of the communication. Sometimes analysis of the different meanings is needed. Sometimes not. I do not talk about wars, rather I like to talk about improving the communication.

    I believe we are quite close to each other’s view on how to deal with context and definition.

    Very interesting blog you wrote.

    Kind regards

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