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Completely Comprehensible Vague Language

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Monica in Burlington, Vermont, says a friend recently told her that her day became kerfunkulated, and Monica knew what she meant without even asking. Why do we successfully infer the meaning of such words? Placeholder words such as thingamajiggy, doohickey, whatchamacallit, and dumaflache are vague terms that substitute for something else and serve a useful semantic function. If you can track down the book Vague Language by Joanna Channel (Internet Archive) it’s a useful resource on the effect of using such words and challenges the notion that it’s always desirable for one’s language to be precise. Another book along these lines is the collection of essays edited by linguist Joan Cutting called Vague Language Explored (Amazon). This is part of a complete episode.

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