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As a software developer, I often face the problem of meaningless terms. It is very common in our industry that a certain term is first coined with a very specific and useful meaning. Then, it becomes fashionable to use that term, so everyone starts using it to mean more and more things until, in a couple of years, the term has become so diluted that its original meaning is lost altogether. This has been occurring with the term agile, for example.

Which philosophers have addressed this probem of dilution of meaning and how to avoid it? I have illustrated the problem with a software development example, but it may occur in every professional field. When a term has reached that meaningless state, it becomes impossible to have a rational, useful and unambiguous discussion.

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    "When a term has reached that meaningless state, it becomes impossible to have a rational, useful and unambiguous discussion." The simple (and oft-used) solution is to define your terms at the beginning of every paper/debate/speech/etc. This is SOP (standard operating procedure) in creating any sort of persuasive argument.
    – stoicfury
    Jan 26, 2012 at 16:13
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    'agile' did have meaning prior to its use in software development, so 'real' meaning is arguable. It is a difficulty when any normal term is appropriated for a specific technical/stipulated term (common in engineering and mathematics). A large source of the problem is the metaphorical use. But I still understand and see the problem.
    – Mitch
    Jan 26, 2012 at 16:14
  • @Mitch, you're right. "Real" was an unfortunate word choice. I fixed it. Jan 26, 2012 at 17:04
  • Maybe you could tell us a little more about your context and motivations here? What's your degree of familiarity with academic philosophy and philosophy of language? Is there anything you might be reading that has made this problem an interesting or urgent concern? (And what have you found out so far?)
    – Joseph Weissman
    Jan 27, 2012 at 3:32

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As a software developer, I often face the problem of meaningless terms.

The difference in information technology is that subjects are often so complex that encapsulating a specific meaning for a specific topic can't often be done with a single word or a short phrase out of context. Often the overall subject is implied so that more generic terms can be used and given meaning within that greater context. The language used for communicating about complex subjects isn't constructed for the purpose of initiating new-comers or making it easy to understand... it develops only for efficiency.

In combination with that, familiarity drives the over-usage of old words because similar concepts can be applied to newer technologies to make them more understandable.

I think Concept Formation is really what you're asking about here. Ayn Rand addressed this problem by arguing that Concepts have an identity within a specific context, and that maintaining that context (as opposed to "dropping the context") is the key to avoiding the pitfalls you're talking about.

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As a software developer, I often face the problem of meaningless terms.

Actually, I doubt that this is true; it is very rare that one comes across a term that is completely devoid of meaning. I suspect that you mean that you come across terms that are ambiguous, or loosely defined.

Which philosophers have addressed this probem of dilution of meaning and how to avoid it?

I've got half an answer for you.

Many philosophers-- Ricouer and Derrida come immediately to mind-- talk about what you are calling "the dilution of meaning." It's not really a dilution, of course, but an expansion of meaning, as words are used in new and different contexts, and the meaning adapts accordingly. As such, no one (that I know of) speaks of "how to avoid it", as it is a necessary part of language. Rigor in language is always a matter of degree; one can attempt to create a formal language where every term is rigorously (and univocally) defined, but any such formal language will remain artificial, Leibniz's dreams notwithstanding.

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This is sort of a problem with any common word in a language. Take for instance the word plan. Ask a number of different people to define it, and you will find potentionally very different definitions. Some people will take it to mean a detailed step by step procedure of all that should be done while others will think it means to generally set the direction of aproximately what should be done; after all it is just a plan and not the complete work.

With respect to computer programming, not having English as my mother language is in some way a benefit for me since all the technical English words are more or less only assosiated with programming. I still remember watching a film where a man said "Sorry I interrupted you" and it struck me that "Oh, right. Interrupt has some non-computer meaning as well".

So I think this is something that is impossible to avoid, and to the degree that you want a word to only have a specific meaning in a discussion, you must assert that meaning when starting.

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