Common yet Ignored Uses

9 March 2024

Some standard dictionaries do not acknowledge the most common uses of the terms dimension and intuition. I don't subscribe to the doctrine — often accepted dogmatically — that common use is the ultimate arbiter of proper use. Moreover, I think that the most common use of dimension (which use arose in ignorant pomposity) is lousy and that the most common use of intuition invites needless confusion. Still, I'm surprised to have the most common use of the former missed altogether, and the most common use of the latter only found glancingly in a definition of another term.

The word dimension originally referred to a measurement between [two things]. When scientists and mathematicians use the singular dimension in reference to space, they mean one of some set of measures or measurements such that a set of these dimensions can jointly identify a position in that space or the extent of something occupying that space. When they declare time to be a fourth dimension, what they mean is that the relationship of time to what we ordinarily regard as space is such that we may as well treat time with space as a single continuum of four measures. When they use dimension to refer to something not meant to be regarded as a measure of this space-time continuum, they mean for it to be treated as none-the-less a measure or measurement, as if it might be graphed.

Some people listening to the scientists and mathematicians, especially as discussion of Einstein's Theories of Relativity began exciting them, tried to figure-out the meaning of dimension from context; other people just faked an understanding, with no real concern for proper meaning. A result was that in the popular imagination, the word dimension came to mean a system that would ordinarily seem to be an independent universe. Extraordinary means would be required to travel from one of these things called a dimension to any other, if such travel were at all possible.

This use was well established in popular fantasy and in science fiction before Rod Serling began presenting The Twilight Zone, but the use and the confusion whence it arose is reflected in some of his prologues, such as this:

There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call The Twilight Zone.

In any case, grab a copy of the OED, of the SOED, or of a Merriam-Webster dictionary; you simply won't find a definition matching this most common use.

You will find at least recent editions of the AHD offering A realm of existence, as in a work of fiction, that is physically separate from another such realm. But you won't find that dictionary actually supporting the most common use of the word intuition.

The word intuition originally referred to direct apprehension. To claim intuition was to claim knowledge without intermediation by anything. The word gained some slightly less breath-taking meanings, but in all cases referred to knowledge, rather than to fallible belief.

But, when the ordinary person uses the word intuition, he or she is not making a claim of infallibility. Rather, intuition is used to refer to inclination of belief, for which no defense is offered in terms of a careful chain of reasoning.

One also doesn't find that more common and more modest use acknowledged in the entries for intuition in the OED, in the SOED, or in a Merriam-Webster dictionary. But I note that in the SOED entry for hunch, the definition is in terms of intuition, yet the two examples given refer each to fallible belief, one overtly. (The other previously mentioned dictionaries also refer to intuition in defining hunch. I've not checked the examples in the OED entry for hunch.)

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