Most arguments are not a result of failure to communicate, and most communication problems are not a result of vaguely or multiply defined terms. But for those that are, Eliezer Yudkowsky suggests a solution: declare the poorly defined word taboo, and try to communicate without it. This is obvious, of course (at least in retrospect), but Eliezer points out what is not so obvious: avoiding a word can be useful even in the absence of an argument, to expose confusion that is masked by familiar terms.

Maybe it's just an illusion of familiarity, but it seems to me that the subject of programming languages has more than its share of such confusion. We talk about formal, unambiguous languages, but the language we do it in is rather sloppy. Many important words are defined so vaguely, or have so many disparate meanings, that they serve less to convey information than to encourage the listener to imagine whatever meaning they please. This is not a huge problem when talking to someone who knows what you mean, but between people with less shared context it's a fount of unenlightening arguments. So I think Eliezer's taboo trick could be useful.

Take object-oriented, for instance. It has a wide range of meanings, so regardless of which one you mean, you can be reasonably confident that your audience will misunderstand. And it's emotionally charged, so those misunderstandings will become arguments. Better to avoid it. You might fall back on words like encapsulation and polymorphism - but both of those are also ambiguous, and in ways that conceal controversies! Clarity is harder than it sounds.

Of course it would be unbearably tedious to say everything with rigorous precision. But much of our vocabulary is pointlessly vague, and I think it creates a lot of confusion with no gain of convenience. So take this as a challenge. Can you say what you have to say about programming languages without using those common words that have no common meaning? How much can you say without mentioning syntax, or functional, or type?

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