The meaning of 'most'

William Shakespeare, who knew a thing or two about words, advised that “An honest tale speeds best, being plainly told.” But the exact meaning of plain language isn’t always easy to find. Even simple words like “most” and “least” can vary greatly in definition and interpretation, and are difficult to put into precise numbers.

Until now.

Thrilling!

In a groundbreaking new linguistic study, Prof. Mira Ariel of Tel Aviv University’s Department of Linguistics has quantified the meaning of the common word “most.” [The study] “is quite shocking for the linguistics world,” she says.

“I’m looking at the nature of language and communication and the boundaries that exist in our conventional linguistic codes,” says Prof. Ariel. “If I say to someone, ‘I’ve told you 100 times not to do that,’ what does ‘100 times’ really mean? I intend to convey ‘a lot,’ not literally ‘100 times.’ Such interpretations are contextually determined and can change over time.”

I’ve noticed that I exaggerate modally—I choose a number and run with it for a while. Currently it’s 5, as in, “I’ve told you 50 times; I had to wait for five hours.” I don’t mean some specific number, I just mean to use it as a placeholder for exaggeration purposes. There must be a term for this. Linguists?

When people use the word “most,” the study found, they don’t usually mean the whole range of 51-99%. The common interpretation is much narrower, understood as a measurement of 80 to 95% of a sample — whether that sample is of people in a room, cookies in a jar, or witnesses to an accident.

So many problems are caused when we try to communicate with words about whose meaning we think we agree when actually we don’t agree at all. But Professor Mira Ariel is helping sort it out by empirically determining what it is that we mean. Wittgenstein showed that the meaning of words cannot extend beyond how they’re used. So empirical studies like this one can help us immensely. I’m betting this kind of research will also help artificial intelligence research.

“‘Most’ as a word came to mean “majority” only recently. Before democracy, we had feudal lords, kings and tribes, and the notion of “most” referred to who had the lion’s share of a given resource — 40%, 30% or even 20%,” she explains. “Today, ‘most’ clearly has come to signify a majority — any number over 50 out of a hundred. But it wasn’t always that way. A two-party democracy could have introduced the new idea that ‘most’ is something more than 50%.”

I can’t tell from this short article whether Professor Ariel has done research to support her assertion that modern democracy really is the source for the lexical definition of “most” as meaning between 51% and 100%. But if true it’s pretty interesting because it shows that the word “most” may be political—that is, an expression of power or authority—rather than geometrical or mathematical, which is what I had always assumed.

Here’s the full article.

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