I recently had an on-line debate over the usage of the word "gibberish". I'm not here to have it settled, but the argument it made me curious about usage conventions in general.

Back story: someone posted a politically charged message. I don't want to repeat it here lest people get polemic, so you'll have to take my word for it:
1. The statement was intelligible, and successfully communicated thepoint it was trying to make.

2. The statement was (for the sake of argument) perjorative andfoolish.
Another gentleman (let's call him E.S.) and I got into an argument over whether this message was "gibberish" or not.
We both referred to the American Heritage Dictionary for definitions. He claimed the message was gibberish based on the first sense of "gibberish" ("unintelligible or nonsensical talk or writing"), and the second sense of "nonsense": ("subject matter, behavior, or language that is foolish or absurd").
I claimed it was not gibberish because, in the dictionary, all senses of "gibberish" were concerned with unintelligibility, thus the word "gibberish" carried a strong connotation of unintelligibilty. Because it carried this strong connotation, it was incorrect for E.S. to use the second sense of "nonsense" to justify his labeling the message as gibberish. (The first sense of "nonsense" is "words or signs having no intelligible meaning", and that is the intended sense.)

I'm not looking for a judgment over who was right, but I'd be interested to know what are the rules of thumb here. Do connotations matter? If all senses of a word have a strong theme, does that invalidate defintions that could technically be true, but go against the connotation? I don't see how it could be possible that all senses of a word in a definition could be valid in general; context must always play some role in what sense to take a word at, but how important is context?
How do writers and editors handle things like this; I'm not a writer myself but I assume they check the dictionaries from time to time. What if such a situation turned up? If, say, I was an editor and E.S. was a writer, could I conceivably be right to make him change it?

What would a Usage Panel do? What do they take into consideration? What about the courts?
Thanks for reading, and for answering if you do that.

Carl Banks
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I recently had an on-line debate over the usage of the word "gibberish". I'm not here to have it settled, ... general; context must always play some role in what sense to take a word at, but how important is context?

I've read this three times and I can't get what you're on about. Wildly guessing, I think you want "gibberish" neatly bound and wrapped. It can't be.
Gibberish can be a stream of sounds that aren't words. Gibberish can be a stream of valid words that have no meaning when viewed as a whole. Gibberish can be a stream of valid words that have a specific meaning when viewed as a whole, but the meaning is unintelligible to the hearer.
"Un buggle raggaboo" is gibberish. "A meaning detrimental to the possibilities obtained" is gibberish. "If an irreducible fraction p/q is a root of P, then p divides a0 and q divides a(subscript)n" is gibberish to me, but may not be gibberish to someone else.

Tony Cooper
Orlando, FL
I recently had an on-line debate over the usage of the word "gibberish". I'm not here to have it settled, ... gibberish. (The first sense of "nonsense" is "words or signs having no intelligible meaning", and that is the intended sense.)[/nq]I think I get this part. You and poster X disagree over whether poster A posted gibberish or merely wrote an inflammatory statement, but as to the rest, I have to agree with Tony. I don't know what you're getting at. Poster A could be understood, but could still be writing nonsense. Those who dislike Henry James make this claim daily about the later works. James writes perfectly cognizant English, but it is tremendously difficult to understand what he means half the time because he refuses to say clearly who was sleeping with whom, or what the particular evil is in a particular passage.

I am not terribly familiar with Woodhouse, but critics who love the fellow say he was a master at showing how unnecessary language is. Modern human beings wouldn't be what they are without it, but it does tend to lend itself to obsfucations and lack of clarity.
Joanne
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I recently had an on-line debate over the usage of the word "gibberish". I'm not here to have it settled, ... make him change it? What would a Usage Panel do? What do they take into consideration? What about the courts?

In his rhetoric, E.S. is using the word "gibberish" figuratively. He is allowed to do this, just as you are allowed to dismiss his rhetoric.

Adrian
I've read this three times and I can't get what you're on about.

Sorry, I was fresh off a flame war.
Wildly guessing, I think you want "gibberish" neatly bound and wrapped. It can't be.

General question was: If a word is used in a way that doesn't fit its connotation, can a technicality in the dictionary justify it?

Specific question about gibberish was: Would something that's intelligible, that conveys the idea without obfuscation, be gibberish if the ideas (but not the words) are nonsensical?
Gibberish can be a stream of sounds that aren't words. Gibberish can be a stream of valid words that have ... then p divides a0 and q divides a(subscript)n" is gibberish to me, but may not be gibberish to someone else.

Ok thanks.
Carl
In his rhetoric, E.S. is using the word "gibberish" figuratively. He is allowed to do this, just as you are allowed to dismiss his rhetoric.

Sure, but since the argument was whether it was valid according to the dictionary, I think there was an assumption that he meant it literally (unless dictionaries are in the business of giving figurative definitions). Not that it isn't a fine line in many cases.
Thanks.
Carl Banks
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If the meaning exists to the extent that it is recognised by dictionaries, the restrictive "connotation" must (by definition) be non-universal.
If a word has two recognised meanings of which you know or use only one the usage by someone else of the "other" sense is not "mis-use". The deficiency lies in your knowledge of recognised variant senses, and not in their use of a different (but recognised) variant meanings.
Specific question about gibberish was: Would something that's intelligible, that conveys the idea without obfuscation, be gibberish if the ideas (but not the words) are nonsensical?

I don't see why "gibberish" can't extend to content as well as form. Take Chomsky's example of a grammatically correct but meaningless sentence "colourless green ideas sleep furiously" which certainly conveys a nonsensical idea without obfuscation.

Does it qualify as "gibberish"? I'd vote "yes".

Cheers, Harvey
Canadian and British English, indiscriminately mixed
I don't know how to answer that. You've just done what you question. Dictionaries contain definitions, and definitions based on usage. What kind of "technicality" could be involved?
A "technicality" is a detail that has meaning to a specialist. The dictionary lists all known usages of a word. If the definitions of words include some specialized usage, it's not a "technicality". It's just another definition.
Specific question about gibberish was: Would something that's intelligible, that conveys the idea without obfuscation, be gibberish if the ideas (but not the words) are nonsensical?

I don't think so. If you make a clear, intelligible written or verbal presentation that involves a premise that doesn't make sense, you are not employing gibberish. The premise and presentation are two different things.
Gibberish can be a stream of sounds that aren't words. ... to me, but may not be gibberish to someone else.

Ok thanks. Carl

Tony Cooper
Orlando, FL
Specific question about gibberish was: Would something that's intelligible, that ... gibberish if the ideas (but not the words) are nonsensical?

I don't think so. If you make a clear, intelligible written or verbal presentation that involves a premise that doesn't make sense, you are not employing gibberish. The premise and presentation are two different things.

They are indeed different things, but I'm not sure about the inapplicability of "gibberish" to describe both.
Extending the term from "meaningless form" to "meaningless content" doesn't strike me as a particularly wild leap in usage; I'd actually be a bit surprised if the meaning hasn't been transferred that way already.

Cheers, Harvey
Canadian and British English, indiscriminately mixed
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