Mind the word ‘barriers’

Barriers - overhead image if two people stood either side of a line

The balcony scene. You know the one. Romeo and Juliet. The one where part of the dialog has been paraphrased thus: A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

The original meaning is discussed here, but I’d like to talk about an engineering slant on words. A great deal of engineering is concerned about form, fit, and function. You’d be able to find definitions of these in many a standard (MIL-HDBK-61A is a good one). If we take these words at face value, though, we’d say that form is about how things are physically or digitally, fit is about how they interact with other things, and function is about what they do. All three interplay in what we design and build. Could we apply the same standard to words?

Individual words assemble into bigger things. Some words have special functions but, on the whole, words convey information from one party to another, whether written, spoken, or even sung. We don’t think about it when we communicate, yet the whole business of communication relies on all parties agreeing many things, often by convention. In that sense, words and the structures in which they exist function as interfaces – they live at the boundaries between people. And where there are boundaries, there can be barriers. Equally, there can be channels.

As much as I’m tempted to go off on a rant about the extremes of slap-dash and over-precise word definitions, I’d rather stick to the goal of communicating information. My experience tells me that context is as important as the definitions for the words we agree to use with each other, if not more. It also tells me that it is the context that is usually left unchallenged and assumed to be in common, when it should be the subject of the debate instead.


Given that we rely on the consistency of definitions – especially when communicating on complicated matters – can we really afford not to invest our time to discuss the words we use and their context? Do you look to context to resolve your debates?