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It's Just Semantics?

Or, “What do you mean?”

In this blog post, I will attempt to share some of my current thoughts and related ideas on “Semantics”.


Throughout my career, and life, I’ve heard the phrase “It’s just semantics” many times, often during some discussion or debate.

The word “semantics” has origins with the Greek word “semantikos” which means “significant”. Today, semantics is concerned with the meaning of a word, phrase, text, or action. Compare that with definitions of “definition” - “a statement of the exact meaning of a word”, and “meaning” – “what is meant by a word, text, concept, or action”. Based on this, if interpreted literally, “It’s just semantics” might mean “It’s just definitions” or “It’s just meaning”. And to me, that seems significant!

However, often I think that “It’s just semantics” is intended to mean, “This discussion or debate is over!” The phrase is frequently used to dismiss some idea or halt some conversation. This meaning of “semantics” is so widespread and has created such a negative connotation around the word/idea of “semantics” that some avoid semantic discussions, entirely. This is unfortunate because semantic discussions should be about seeking understanding.

If you’ve ever asked or respond to the question, “What do you mean?”, the reply and subsequent conversation was likely semantic - seeking to understand the intended meaning conveyed by some word or phrase.

In My Experience, attempting to gain understanding (but not necessarily agreement!) is important. Whether with coworkers or kids, semantic discussions can help lead to better, deeper communication.

I examine and explore “semantics” in my talks “Word Smatter” and “CommuTication”.

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