When Definition Does Not “Count”

There have been some interesting conversations cropping up in my mindsphere this last week or so, and many of them have rotated around differences in definition. 

(working definition of “Mindsphere”:  that part of existence and awareness that actually gets noticed by an individual’s active mentation processes… kind of like the BlogOSphere, but only inclusive of what is actually within immediate use/grasp)

One of the more troubling of those differences was heard during an installment of the “A Way With Words” radio program (on the Web at http://www.waywordradio.org), in which a caller was describing his daughter’s education and a teacher insisting that a FACT could be true OR false.  Silly me, I knew that facts are facts – but no, it seems that a secondary definition in at least some dictionaries has corrupted what was once a pure concept, an invariant of the thnker’s mindscape.  A fact can now, and is specifically being taught as, neither true or false in and of itself.

Then I thought some more.  What seems to have happened, at least as I theorize here, is that “statement of fact” and “fact” have been conflated  in a rush to (over-)simplify.  Or, phrased alternatively, the perfectly good terms “hypothesis” and “hypothetical statement” have fallen even further out of fashion than I believed they had.  Admitted, perhaps a bit beyond a third-grade level of comprehension, but is there a real NEED to so over-simplify a concept as to corrupt a perfectly good, solid word in our common lexicon?

No simple answer presents itself on this one – remembering that dictionaries are DESCRIPTIVE of actual word use and meaning, not PRESCRIPTIVE.  Le Sigh.

On a marginally related note, consider the writing genre of “Historical Fiction”.  Just what part / how much of our shared mental landscape agrees on the range of years that are covered by the concept?  For one immediate example, I learned just today that there is a rather extreme divide by national bias:  German publishers apparently only use the label on works set in the Middle Ages or earlier, while from direct personal experience here in America the divide is much, much closer in the chronicles.   

Or is it?  Consider novels set during the Viet Nam “conflict”.  When do they cease being “Contemporary Fiction” and become “Historical Fiction”?  World War II?  World War I? The Crimean War? 

What makes the “Historical Romance” so very different, underneath, and creates so many rich sub-types / niches (settings like Regency, Frontier, American Revolution, mid-1950s Nursing, etc.), that in turn take on their own narrow range of requirements?

All this becomes even more tangled if I include “alternate history” settings, such as created by H. Beam Piper, Harry Turtledove, S.M. Stirling, or Eric Flint (and his collaborators).  Or others – the field has expanded considerably.  A few years back there was even a mainstream-ish effort to teach “real-world” history by contrasting against a backdrop of alternate history scenarios (What if LSD research had been successfully kept secret, or never happened at all?  What if Truman had aborted the Nagasaki atom bomb attack, or chosen a different target? What if the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand had never occurred?).

I have been known to write speculative fiction, including science fiction, fantasy, and other related genres never quite as accepted as “contemporary”.  The pigeon-holes have from time to time made marketing a given work difficult.  To draw upon examples from film, consider ALIEN.  Is it science fiction? Well, certainly?  Is it horror?  Undoubtedly!  Is it effective story-telling?  Individual opinion, but I believe so. 

Third theme for this post, and I’ll give my fingers a rest.  This past week also saw the first Presidential debate of the 2012 American campaign season matching the Democratic and Republican party candidates.  Won’t go into who “won” or “lost”, for in the context of this current exploration the far more important development was the extent to which external FACT checking was needed / required to truly evaluate the statements made from behind the podiums.  Things presented as facts were more precisely opinion even where number values were being given, or were made less reliable by rounding of those numbers.  (Five billion, my left hind cheek – the original source for that appears to have been 4.8 billion.  Two hundred million dollars is not exactly insignificant.)  

One of the problematic rules of the whole process should have been exposed more completely, I think:  the candidates were not allowed to use any written notes or similar references.  May have meant more words coming out of their mouths, did not make for better words.  Anywhere else in reasoned discourse, we would expect representations of “fact” to be backed by citations.  Gentlemen, where are your sources?  Who provided those glib numbers?

Who commands and controls YOUR truth?

(Disclaimer / usage note on applied definitions:  numerical word values throughout are as associated to American English, not British…)

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