Words have meaning. Words have context.

“Facts all come with points of view.
Facts don’t do what I want them to”

—Talking Heads, Crosseyed and Painless

More than one person has commented on the irony that taxonomists often seem too comfortable with ambiguity. I’m particularly guilty of that, or so I’ve been told. For a while, I would just smirk and mutter something self-deprecating about cobbler’s children or hobgoblins

But as I thought about it, the more it made sense. Taxonomists spend their time wrestling with words, categories, relationships, and meaning. In so doing, it immediately becomes clear that context is an essential part of the work. 

Describing the full context for each word during general conversation is a fool’s errand. Imagine talking with your neighbor about your car and having to refer to it as your motorized vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine optimized for usage on paved roads. The context is not just about the domain that the definition is situated in, it also includes the audiences who are interacting with the word.  Both you and your neighbor know and share enough context to simply refer to a car.

Tiers of Definitions

Take the word “windmill”, for example. Creating a definition for “windmill” in the general case (e.g. a standard dictionary definition) takes skill and precision. Let’s call this a “Tier 1” definition.  The definition will be generally accessible to most people and apply to most items that we refer to as “windmills”.

However, maybe you create a definition of “windmill” in the context of a specific domain, like Energy Sources or Early Machines. These definitions will likely start to diverge. These “Tier 2” definitions should role up to the Tier 1 definition, but they will likely differ from each other as they incorporate the needs of the context they’re in. 

Even in the context of an individual domain, like “Energy Sources”, terms will often be used or applied in different ways. It is easy to see that windmills may have different definitions in the “Land Based Energy Sources” category versus the “Ocean Based Energy Sources”. These are the “Tier 3” definitions. 

  • Tier 1— The most general definition of a concept that accommodates the full context.
  • Tier 2— The definition of a concept in the context of a particular domain or use case
  • Tier 3— The definition of a concept in the context of a particular usage.

To be clear, there are many tools, such as alternate terms, or attributes, that taxonomists use to address this ambiguity. However, even when the ambiguity is addressed in the taxonomies, the natural language of conversation does not incorporate these very well. It may be that the taxonomy we created for Energy Sources would have two terms, one called “Windmills – Land Based” and one called “Windmills – Aquatic”. However, we rarely speak like this and we often lean on contextual clues to help.

But, what about multiple definitions?

It is not uncommon, in our projects, for terms to have multiple definitions. In a recent project we had the following definitions associated with terms in a taxonomy: 

  • Glossary Definition
  • Tagging Guidelines
  • Marketing Definition, and 
  • Support Definition. 

You’ll notice that these definitions are all aligned with each other, but that alignment does not mean that there won’t be ambiguity when different people use these definitions across domains.

“But, can’t we just use the Tier 1 definition in all cases?” 

The answer is no (and a bit of yes). If we’re doing our work well as taxonomists we will have identified the needs of the taxonomy (and users). We will have consolidated concepts as much as possible. The terms and the attributes associated with the terms (in this case the attributes are the different definitions) are created intentionally to help people categorize things to make sense of the world, take action, or make decisions. 

The definition of a windmill in the context of historical machines is much different than the definition of a modern windmill generating electrical power. Again, the different definitions must all be consistent or derivatives of the Tier 1 definition — but someone studying historical machines has a much different set of needs than someone planning a new windmill farm on the Atlantic. 

Where ambiguity and miscommunication can come from. 

Even when the Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3 definitions are well written, and the terms are well organized in the taxonomies, it is rare that the full context of a term is used (or known) in communication. A conversation between two people in the same context can benefit from the shared understanding that those two people have about the domain. 

However, problems and ambiguity often arise when the conversations are between people with a different context, or with people who have different degrees of access to the full context. This is where people start talking past each other, or cannot find common ground. 

Taxonomists, having worked so closely in this area, are generally aware of where issues may appear and notice the ambiguity that arises when crossing these boundaries. Understanding why and where ambiguity exists enables taxonomists to prioritize definitions for contexts that are of high value to an organization, aligning with both users and use cases. 

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