Sometimes it is essential to stop an argument and clarify what a particular word means, if it is being used to mean different things without both parties realising. And sometimes it is essential not to allow an argument about what a word means to derail an argument. Because both of these things are true, many deduce from each truth that the other truth is false. But both are true.
I have tended (following Popper, and probably misunderstanding him) to think that arguments about meaning are pointless, even when they are not. Others err in favour of arguing about meaning, even when they ought not to be arguing about meaning.
Suppose both parties are using the same word in an argument (to describe an important part of what they are arguing about), but are, unknowingly, using this word to mean two different things. (An onlooker may help by pointing this out.) They need to pinpoint this disagreement, and see if, while agreeing to differ about what this word means (or ought to mean) they can agree about the substance of what they are saying. Or not agree. The point is: arguments about meaning can come disguised as something else, and seem more significant than they are. They can seem like arguments of substance. Then, the true nature of the disagreement needs to be identified. If there is no other disagreement, it helps to realise this. Even if there is, ditto.
But if two parties are having an argument, and one party introduces a new word into the argument, clearly meaning by it something that the other person thinks that this word doesn’t mean or shouldn’t mean. They disagree about the meaning of this new word, and they both know it. In those circumstances, getting sidetracked into a different and duller argument about what that word means or ought to mean can divert them from their original, more interesting and significant argument about something of substance.
Or to put it another way, my thanks to Antoine Clarke for his most diverting party yesterday afternoon and evening, where I found myself working all that out.
And a happy new year to all.