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  • Writer's pictureEvan Warfel

Meta-synonyms and their opposites

Updated: Dec 19, 2018

I've come to believe that in every language there are “meta-synonyms” or what can seem like completely different ways of describing the roughly the same thing. People may react to one phrasing but accept the other, even though, on some level, both phrasings mean the same thing.

There is a mirror phenomenon that I don’t yet have a great word for, when two people use the same word or phrase to mean two different things, even though think they are using the same definition.

In the first case, the implicit meaning of the different phrases is similar, even though the explicit words used differ. In the second case, the explicit words are identical, but the implicit definitions are different.

Both cases cause people to talk past each other.

In this is relatively short post, I’ll give a few examples of each, starting with meta-synonyms.

First, let’s start with something trivial. Consider “empathy” and “sympathy.” Some people care about the distinction between sympathizing and empathizing, and operate as if these are two different things. We can turn to Psychology Today for the definitions:

"Empathy can be defined as a person’s ability to recognize and share the emotions of another person, fictional character, or sentient being.
Sympathy (‘fellow feeling,’ ‘community of feeling’) is a feeling of care and concern for someone, often someone close, accompanied by a wish to see him better off or happier."

Gendered language aside, the difference seems to be that in one you “feel other people’s feelings” and in the other you’re concerned for their well-being.

Yet according to Carl Rogers, what we perceive as empathy is the result of being on the receiving end of someone really trying to understand what you are experiencing, provided they themselves know what they are experiencing. In fact, his main theory holds that “empathy” and “sympathy” are nearly inseparable. (Especially for those of us who aren’t psychopaths.)

The point is that these distinctions aren’t great; and my observation is that there is such a degree of overlap between these concepts that most of the time people use empathy and sympathy, they function as meta-synonyms.

Second. Imagine yourself interviewing for a job in two parallel universes.

In the first, your interviewer says “Tell me — what didn’t come naturally to you in your previous job? ”

In the second, your interviewer says “Thinking about your last job, what were your weaknesses?”

For some people, these are very different questions, where “weakness” can be charged with moral associations. I’ll admit the second phrasing is more aggressive and presupposes a more hierarchical way of looking at the world.

But if you think about it, what’s really going on is that two different worldviews are being used to get the interviewee report similar behavioral decision-making traits.

Third. Marshall Rosenberg's Non-Violent Communication (NVC) framework suggests that the point of our feelings is to inform us if our “needs” are being met.

For instance, thirst tells us if our need for hydration is being met. Fear can tell us if our need for safety isn’t being met. And so on. But if you've picked up on the fact that people aren't supposed to be "needy,” or maybe someone criticized a friend of yours (He always has a lot of drama in his life, she’s so needy, etc.), then you might be turned off by the NVC framework.

But! The NVC definition of need is meta-synonymous with desire, and desire’s synonyms. You could probably stretch this to “hunger” too. Compare the following:

I’m feeling scared because my desire for security isn’t being met.

I’m feeling sad because my need for clarity isn’t being met

I have what I want in terms of autonomy and I’m feeling happy

The feelings and “needs” are difference in each utterance, but the structure of each is meta-synonymic.

(There is a separate phenomenon where different communities will come up with their own vocabulary to refer to already existing concepts. People who frequent burning man, for example, call litter "Moop" (from "Matter out of place") and dust "playa.")

Now for the opposite case, identical words and phrases that cane be explicitly taken to mean the same thing but in fact imply something different.

As for what to call it, though there are a ton of entries on wikipedia’s Figure of Speech page and Antaclasis comes close; I think I will go with calling this implicit or blind polysemy.

Here are some examples:

1. “I take 100% responsibility for < some situation>” can mean:

  • I’ve decided to blame myself for this whole thing

  • I am aware of my contributions to the situation and I am not shying away from them

In every case, blame involves perceiving the chain or cascade of “what happened and why” in an artificially truncated manner. However, some people may not have a lot practice identifying their own contribution to a situation. Thus a person not fully aware of these distinctions might be prone to saying something like:

“I’m not responsible for anyone feelings, I just don’t want to make my friend sad.”

2. Relatedly, “owning something” when it relates to an aspect of yourself can be taken to mean:

  • Not taking crap from anyone

  • Not shying away from what is already in your possession

Here's a Modern Love NYT column where the author seems to have confused these definitions for a while.

3. I’m skeptical about <X>can mean:

  • My prior belief about X being true is very low… It will take a lot of evidence to convince me.

  • My bar for updating my beliefs is very low… I’m open to updating my beliefs.

The first definition is more common, even though a true skeptic is one who is always open to updating their beliefs.

Learning to spot meta-synonyms takes practice; I’m still working on it myself. For whatever reason, it’s easier for me to spot instances of blind polysemy. Happiness, of course, has many implicit definitions; stay tuned for a future blog post.

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