Language Is Personal

This past week, I put up four blog posts with “mechanism” in the title, describing one facet of how I see structural analysis. There were a few comments about the content, which I expected; there were also comments about that word, which I did not. It was as clear a reminder as I’ve gotten that words are social constructs without immutable meanings.

The point raised by the commenters is that the word “mechanism” implies motion, and since structural motion is something to be avoided and minimized (except in the rare cases of intentionally movable structure, like arena roofs and the like) my use of that word seemed wrong and was distracting from my point. My immediate reaction was to defend my use and in a classic example of the logical fallacy called “appeal to authority” I decided to look up “mechanism” in the dictionary. Unsurprisingly, both sides are right: one definition of the word refers to moving parts in a machine and another refers to a system or method of achieving a goal. I had in mind the second meaning and the commenters had in mind the first. (As a side note, the order of those two meanings varies with which dictionary you use – I looked at a couple of online ordinary dictionaries and the OED – and there may be differences in UK versus US usage.)

But the possible correctness of my position is meaningless. If several engineers, who understood the argument I was making about structural analysis, felt that my language was wrong and obscuring my point, then it was. I can tell other people words that I believe convey the gist of what I think, but not how to interpret those words. If my meaning isn’t clear, then it’s on me to clarify it.

Now, of course, I have to find another word or phrase to replace “structural mechanism” in my personal view of structural analysis. It needs to be distinct from phrases in ordinary use, so “structural systems” or “structural models” are no good. Maybe I should put away the dictionary and whip out the thesaurus…

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