When Kevin Kelly interviewed me about The Information for Wired, he asked me to define the word, and I was unprepared. I did some hemming and hawing (which he mercifully omitted). I see it continues to trouble him. Others have asked me the same question, and I continue to hem and haw. You might think I would have it figured out by now.

The problem of definition runs as a a minor thread throughout my book. The very idea that a word has a definition is surprisingly new—barely 400 years old. You might think it is obvious, but it is not. People managed to use words for millennia without worrying too much. John Locke felt it necessary to explain in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding:

Definition being nothing but making another understand by Words, what Idea the term defined stands for.

In the very first English dictionary, Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall in 1604, we see that defining words is not so easy. I quote a few of my favorite Cawdrey definitions (in their entirety):

crocodile, [kind of] beast.
vapor, moisture, ayre, hote breath, or reaking.
theologie, divinitie, the science of living blessedly for ever.

The word information isn’t in Cawdrey’s dictionary. Our authority, the Oxford English Dictionary, now requires 9,400 words for its entry—a multitude of definitions—as I discussed here.

Words are not meant to be pinned to the mat like butterflies. Also in The Information I explore the ancient dream of a perfect language, a dream of Gottfried Leibniz, of the Esperantists, of logicians like George Boole and Bertrand Russell. One imagines God’s own dictionary, described by the novelist Dexter Palmer this way: “one-to-one correspondences between the words and their definitions, so that when God sends directives to his angels, they are completely free from ambiguity.”

That dictionary does not exist. Our language is a thing of infinite possibility. We learn to live with ambiguity and with choice.

So I can give information a nice, short, epigrammatic definition. It’s suitable for tweeting. But it’s not complete. And it’s not final.


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