Today I was listening to a podcast (I had run out of AWWW), and the hosts were discussing a historic event. One of them said that a certain protest was “symbolic.” The other agreed that it was “really symbolic.” I was a little surprised they thought it was so important.
Shortly, it became clear that what they were saying was that it was MERELY symbolic, that is, ineffectual.
I totally misunderstood their intent. I thought they were elevating the importance of this protest by giving it “symbolic” significance. In fact, they were dismissing it. I remark that the use of “really symbolic” underscores the shared understanding of a negative connotation. I don’t find this negative definition in any of the dictionaries I have consulted.
Grant Barrett said
… could happen to just about any adjective.
This would be true of most adjectives: while a definition of it can be fixed down-pat such as in a dictionary, the true living sense of it will involve a readjustment of one's preconception.
The adjective symbolic certainly works that way.
Likewise does human, as in this statement:
'Our leader is human,'
which can have opposing senses if one comes from opposing preconceptions, for instance these:
1--He is not the angel we thought he was (e.g. now that he has displayed meanness of character.)
2--He is not an unfeeling psycho after all (e.g. now that he has shown genuine kindness to children.)
So adjectives will the same one both elevate and debase, enlarge and diminish, intensify and lessen, etc.