Defining Paganism II: Foundations of Word Meaning

In the last post I posed the problem: what is the meaning of the word pagan today? It’s an issue much more difficult than deciding on the meaning of, say, cabbage, both because of the complex history of the world and because of the high stakes. Deciding who is a pagan, and who is not, has serious consequences for the cohesion of the pagan community, its self-image, how others perceive it, and the rights of its members.

So what is the real definition of pagan?

ire17It might seem, from the previous discussion, that pagan has no real definition — or that it has half a dozen definitions depending on who you ask. But in fact I’d argue that it does have a single definition, and the confusion about the word only arises because of the high stakes of community and self-definition involved in nailing down the specifics.

Before I tackle pagan, though, I need to illustrate some facts about word meaning that are not generally known.

Fuzzy Houses

If you take a word — any word — and try to define it precisely, you will run into problems, even with words that may seem very simple, like house. The usual sort of dictionary definition — something like “a building for humans to live in” — is generally sufficient for the vast majority of cases, but there are often strange things going on around the edges.

For example, what exactly is the difference between a house and an apartment building? Between a house and a hut? Or a tent? Are underground homes houses, or do they have to be built above ground? Are houses always stationary, or could a mobile home count as a house? (Baba Yaga famously had a mobile home — a house with chicken legs…) And does it have to be a human dwelling? Suppose robots become sentient and built homes for themselves; would we call those houses, too? How about aliens? How about birdlike aliens that had nests with roofs?…

You can play this word game with just about anything you care to name. Wittgenstein famously played this game with the word game itself, pointing out that there really was no definition for the word that covered exactly those things we call game and excluded everything we don’t call a game.

The point is not that language is vague, or full of exceptions, or messy, or anything like that. It’s that word meaning is different from the way most people think of it. Conceptual space isn’t carved up by words into definite domains, such that everything in the world gets a nice tidy label.

The House Prototype

So how does word meaning really work?

Well, think of house. What comes to mind? I’m guessing it’s a single-family home, free-standing, with one or two stories and maybe a garage and some windows and a lawn. Obviously not all houses are like that, but when you think house, that’s the image that comes to mind. It’s a stereotypical house — or, to use a more accurate term, a prototypical house. When you think of a game, you probably think of something like chess — a two-person board game, or maybe a card game. When you think of a bird, you probably think of a small wren-like creature, and not a penguin.

Words tend to be associated with prototypes. This is why the dictionary definitions are full of equivocating words like especially or usually or often, words that allow the dictionary’s lexicographers to describe the prototypes behind the words without forcing them to list out all the potential exceptions.

Words need not be associated with just one prototype. Usually the prototypes are related in some way, unless the word is genuinely ambiguous (like bank referring to a river’s edges, an aerial maneuver, and a place for losing your money). Game, for example, has a cluster of them, including prototypes like card game and board game and computer game and ball game. These prototypical games have some things in common — they are done for recreation, they involve more than one person in competition, using some sort of plaything, etc. — but these things held in common do not suffice for a necessary and sufficient definition of the word. They are separate but related prototypes that are associated with a single word. Given an activity like solitaire, we judge that it is a game without much difficulty, even though it involves just one person and no competition. It’s close enough to the prototypical card game that we can easily stretch the game concept to accommodate it. Similarly, patty-cake is also called a game, even though there is no competition and there are no cards, balls, computers, or boards involved; the fact that there are two players and it’s done for recreation is enough.

In the next post, we’ll take this theory of word meaning and apply it to pagan.

Educational Resources


  1. Argenta says:

    “Well, think of house. What comes to mind? I’m guessing it’s a single-family home, free-standing, with one or two stories and maybe a garage and some windows and a lawn. Obviously not all houses are like that, but when you think house, that’s the image that comes to mind. It’s a stereotypical house — or, to use a somewhat prettier term, an archetypal house.”

    Dear Jeff,
    something’s been bothering me for a while about this paragraph, but only today did I remember what! What you are describing here is not an archetypal house (no matter how pretty the term), which would be more universal and world-spread, but a culture-specific GENERIC house. An archetypal house would be,for example, the House of Death or lunar houses – that type of house which is shared in time and space through many cultures. A generic house is simply the best example of the word for a given community, in this example, a North American one. Where I come from, a generic house is a bit different, and usually does not have a lawn but a flower garden, and sometimes a vegetable garden or an orchard in the back.

    Hope it wasn’t too preposterous of me to point out.

  2. Jeff Lilly says:

    Argenta, I think you’re right — I was misusing ‘archetype’. After a little more research, I think the correct linguistic term is ‘prototype’. I’m going to make edits in the post and fix it up. It’s sad to have to change the title, but so it goes. 🙂 Thanks for pointing it out!


  1. […] Paganism III: Archetypes of the Pagan In the last post I laid some linguistic groundwork by talking about what word meaning was, and what it wasn’t. […]

  2. […] the last few posts, I proposed a definition of pagan based on the notion of prototypes. In this definition, […]

  3. […] by trade as well as by nature who has nearly two decades of experience in the field, has written on several occasions about how language and labels function and evolve, especially when it comes to religious […]

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