I propose, without much hope, a new Internet law, Webster’s law1:

As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a participant resorting to the dictionary definition of an important term approaches 1.

For me, this has come up several times in discussions of #NoEstimates, but I’ve seen it often and probably you have as well:

Some discussion is going on. It becomes clear that some of the differences hinge on the meaning of some important term in the discussion, “estimate” in our case. Sooner or later, someone tries to settle the issue by quoting a dictionary definition of the term.

Does this ever work? No.

This never works. Let me repeat that: this never works.

Almost certainly, the discussion really is hanging on the meaning of that word. The people are arguing, at least in part “about semantics”. Semantics, of course, is the study of meaning, and the discussion hangs on the meaning of the words being used2.

Often, the individual resorting to the dictionary is arguing in such a way that if the word in question is defined as the dictionary says, his argument will prevail. Does that ever work? Have you been paying attention at all??? No, it never works!

Oh yes, the participants are using the term differently. But even if you could win the discussion by using the dictionary definition, it doesn’t matter. Quite likely, the people using the term differently are talking about an important issue and are perfectly correct in their context.

Wait, what, win the discussion?

Have you noticed how often people seem to try to be winning a discussion? A discussion really needs to be an exploration. Now it would be nice if they would reach out to you and get on board with your perfectly logical and accurate use of the definition of the word. But particularly if you just waded in to the middle of an ongoing discussion, and even if you didn’t, how about reaching out and trying to clarify what’s being talked about.

This almost certainly can’t be done with the dictionary. It’s possible that it can be done by adding an adjective or other clarifying phrase to the term being bandied about. First reach an understanding of what is meant (semantics, see what I mean?), and then agree on a refinement of the term in question, and then agree that, in this discussion, when we say “X” we mean “X, as refined”.

It’s semantics all the way down.

I tried that, of course, in “A Matter of Definition?”. It seems not to have worked either. Possibly nothing works, but our best hope for reaching common understanding is to understand what the other person means.

Godwin’s law has an associated corollary, that the first person to mention Nazis or Hitler loses. What’s interesting in the case of Webster’s law is that resorting to the dictionary does almost always lose, because by doing so the definer has just announced that he is using the term differently from the others in the discussion. The definer has just walked out of the room.

Walk back into the room. Seek understanding in a discussion, not to win. Discussions are won, for everyone in them, only when a common understanding is reached, whether or not agreement comes with it. Your job is to find agreement with them. Only then, if ever, can you help them.

  1. A tip of the hat, of course, to Mike Godwin, creator of Godwin’s Law.

  2. “When I use a word,” Humpty-Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” — Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass