Question the precise meaning of a word or complain that a particular phrase is vague or ambiguous and someone – perhaps a politician – is likely to respond patronizingly, dismissing your concerns as quibbling, nitpicking, or paranoia.
“Oh, that's just semantics,” he or she will say, as though the actual meaning intended is irrelevant and the whole point of communication is not to communicate clearly.
Their unspoken contention is that semantics is an esoteric subject ordinary people are not equipped to understand and don't need to worry about. The true goal is to shut you up before everyone else starts asking the same questions.
Lately, in the wake of controversial Supreme Court rulings made possible by the willful twisting of plain meaning, a lot of ordinary people are beginning to realize that the choice of words is pretty important, that definitions matter, and that it's not “just semantics.”
What's particularly important is to make sure that two people or parties using the same words are talking about the same thing.
For instance, if you're accustomed to using the words bad, wicked, and ill as negatives, you may be confused by someone who uses them as positives.
You'd think the meaning of the word “navigable” is pretty obvious, not likely to be disputed, and in most places and with most people you'd be right. Most people have no trouble understanding that “navigable” means “capable of being navigated,” as in navigated by a ship or boat or barge, or some other floating vessel that can carry cargo or passengers.
Unfortunately, our word-twisting public servants at the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington (affect to) take a much broader view of the word “navigable,” so broad, in fact, that it would allow them to dictate terms to a vast majority of landowners in America.
Thankfully, Patrick Morrisey and eight other state attorneys general are challenging this attempted power grab in court.
It may be “just semantics,” but semantics is everything.