Of the importance of choosing the right word

Nearly a century ago, in his book The problems of Philosophy, Bertrand Russell commented on the work of Bishop Berkeley:

It is often said, as though it were a self-evident truism, that we cannot know that anything exists which we do not know. […]

And he made an important remark:

Again, it is by no means a truism, and is in fact false, that we cannot know that anything exists which we do not know. The word ‘know’ is here used in two different senses. (1) In its first use it is applicable to the sort of knowledge which is opposed to error, the sense in which what we know is true, the sense which applies to our beliefs and convictions, i.e. to what are called judgements. In this sense of the word we know that something is the case. This sort of knowledge may be described as knowledge of truths. (2) In the second use of the word ‘know’ above, the word applies to our knowledge of things, which we may call acquaintance. This is the sense in which we know sense-data. (The distinction involved is roughly that between savoir and connaître in French, or between wissen and kennen in German.)


The Problems of Philosophy - by Bertrand Russell

The Problems of Philosophy - by Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Russell had realised that the problem was not so much an epistemological problem, but a problem of terminology that led to a fallacious argument. Bishop Berkeley, whom he was criticising, had failed to notice that the verb ‘to know’ was equivocal and he used alternately both meanings of the word ‘to know’ — and this caused endless discussions amongst philosophers, especially the English ones.


Although it may appear obvious once it is pointed out, this was not easy to notice. Continental philosophers – by using Latin, French or German – had circumvented the argument because they already had two different words for each meaning and therefore could readily make the distinction between the two meanings.

On our projects, we choose terms for our features, classes, functions and other concepts because we think that they reflect what we intend them to be. But sometimes, they end up being quite different from the original intent. Even if they seem appropriate at the time, it is important to ensure that the meaning of the terms we use actually reflects what they are used for, especially when designing API or a key functionality of the system.

If we do not, we run the risk of inducing confusion – not only amongst users and other developers, but amongst ourselves.

In one instance recently, we became aware that something was wrong with one of the features of our software: we could not describe it properly. We could not quite put our finger on why we could not, but we were having frustrating discussions because its definition was shifty. This is because we were not actually talking about the same thing.

We thought we were, but as it happens, that feature had evolved over time and started to be used under different contexts and it did slightly different things — and therefore the term for it started to mean different things: it had become equivocal.

Part of the problem came from the fact that we had not properly defined that feature initially. Having an umbrella term was convenient originally. In fact, it was almost too good because it always seemed to express what we wanted regardless of the context. But the more generic the term, the more likely it is to acquire different meanings over time. The fact that it was so fitting and generic regardless of the context should have given us a clue that we should specify it better.

Through their usage, words evolve over time by acquiring new meanings and some times discarding old ones. My trusted dictionary provides about a dozen different meanings for ‘know’ as verb; one of these meanings  “to have sexual intercourse with” has clearly fallen into disuse.

The meanings of words are bounds to evolve because language is a social institution. The terms that we use are simply labels that we use to refer to things, when these things change or the meaning of the term change, we expose ourselves to confusion and misunderstanding, so it is better to anticipate.

Carefully choosing the word describing a feature, a function or a piece of code is time saved later. It helps bringing clarity and avoiding pointless discussions because of equivocation. If philosophers could be fooled, I don’t see why software engineers would not be fooled as well.

A good dictionary should be part of every developer’s toolkit and a quick look at the thesaurus is not a waste of time. It will make life easier for other developers working on the software, it will make it easier to communicate with managers, and it will make it easier for the sales and marketing folks to explain the software.

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