On Semantic Nuances

Today I had a rather interesting discussion with some of my colleagues. Andreas Abel is visiting Chalmers this week. Since he was working here for some time he is quite good at swedish and so we spoke swedish with him. But he wasn't quite sure of the swedish word for 'scientist' and tried 'vetenskapare' which makes kind of sense consider the general way that one can construct words in swedish but the actual term is 'vetenskapsman'. Which made us realize that the term 'vetenskapsman' isn't used about scientists today in swedish. Although 'vetenskapsman' corresponds to 'scientist' in english it has a different connotation. Instead the word 'forskare' is used which corresponds to 'researcher'.

So what do swedes really mean when they say 'vetenskapsman'? Ulf Norell suggested that it meant a scientist from say 16th or 19th century i.e. way back in history. Similarly, I suggested a scientist which has contributed to what is considered established scientific truths. But we couldn't really decide how precise these definitions were. Michael Hedberg then joined the discussion and said that the word 'vetenskapsman' made him think of Frankenstein or mad scientists in general. I'm not sure that does the job either but it is clear that the term has some very strange connotations which makes it unsuitable for today's scientists.

While it can be very interesting to try to think about what people mean with certain words I must also offer a word of caution. All too many argument are really about the definition of words. Never engage in such arguments. They are completely pointless and lead to nothing. Instead try to understand what people mean when they say something and when it seems strange to you ask them to be more precise. If their definition of a word doesn't correspond to yours then simply accept their definition as a hypothetical viewpoint and move on. There are more important things to argue about.

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