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How we're tricked by Semantic Smuggling

Welcome to Good Thought, a newsletter about fresh ideas for purposeful living in the 2020s.

I’m Aaron Nesmith-Beck. I founded Atman, one of the first legal psilocybin retreats, and my writing at Freedom & Fulfilment has over 1M pageviews. You can learn more about me here.

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How we’re tricked by Semantic Smuggling

When you hear the word home, what associations come up? Warmth, safety, a place of your own? Family, fond memories of growing up, or delicious home-cooked meals?

How about the word house? It’s not quite the same, is it? House is a bit flat—just a building with some rooms, doors and windows.

While home and house have very different connotations, in the domain of real estate, home is used almost exclusively to refer to houses.

Why is that? A house isn’t the only kind of home. A home could be:

  • An apartment
  • A cabin
  • A hut
  • A cottage
  • A monastery
  • A yurt
  • An ashram


And so on. Yet in real estate, we all implicitly understand home to mean house.

Another kind of home

You may be familiar with the term Russell Conjugation. A Russell Conjugation is when a word or phrase with the same technical definition but a different connotation is used for effect. For example:

I am firm, you are obstinate, he is pig-headed.

I am righteously indignant, you are annoyed, he is making a fuss over nothing.

The use of the word home in real estate is a particular kind of domain-specific Russell Conjugation. This is what I’m calling semantic smuggling.

Where, outside of real estate, do we hear the word home? In what contexts? Most often in reference to those warm, welcoming, familial feelings in phrases like:

  • Welcome home
  • I’ll be home for Christmas
  • Home sweet home
  • Heading home for the holidays
  • It’s good to be home
  • There’s no place like home
  • Home is where the heart is


And so on. Semantic smuggling is taking a word we’re used to hearing in certain contexts, and making it part of the lexicon in a particular domain, thus smuggling the meaning from those contexts into that domain.

This is typically done to help frame the domain in a certain way; to reinforce its dominant narrative. Semantic smuggling helps solidify the story a domain—and the people in it—want to believe and tell about themselves.

A second-order effect of semantic smuggling is that everyone who participates in the domain picks up the language and inadvertently begins reinforcing the narrative, too.

Let me give you two more examples.

“Care” in medicine

Care, used in medicine, literally means something like medical treatment. Yet care—like home—is used almost exclusively, and has a range of positive connotations.

Care implies caring, and whether caring for one another or caring for the planet, caring is considered a virtue. Caring is a sign of a compassionate, moral person. You are selfish if you “don’t care” about others.

Now imagine a family member is dying in the hospital and you’re forced to decide whether or not to withdraw care. If you decide to withdraw care, it doesn’t sound like you want to withdraw medical treatment, it sounds like you want to stop caring for the person.

Similarly, compare the following:

Do you consent to your loved one receiving care?

Do you consent to your loved one receiving medical intervention?

Or compare care provider with medical practitioner or medical authority.

Words matter, and sometimes a lot. Choice of language in medicine has real implications for life and death decision-making.

“Defense” in the military

Political institutions are among the finest semantic smugglers, and nowhere is this more clear than in the branch of government that oversees the US military. Did you know that the Department of Defense was originally called the War Department or War Office?

If you’re making budgeting decisions, are you more likely to fund defense spending or military expenditure?

In what other contexts do we generally hear the word defense? In sports, self-defense, legal defense, or maybe defense against the dark arts. All protective, at times noble, and totally necessary activities.

Yet, since the introduction of the word defense almost 75 years ago, US military operations have taken place exclusively on foreign soil.

And while the Department of Defense does not only oversee aggressive military action, all aggressive military action—including bombing, invasion, and the like—is nonetheless held under the semantic umbrella of defense.

TL;DR

To recap: Semantic smuggling is taking a word we’re used to hearing in certain contexts, and making it part of the lexicon in a particular domain, thus smuggling the meaning from those contexts into that domain.

This is done to help reinforce the domain’s dominant narrative. Home in real estate, care in medicine, and defense in the military are all examples.

Why is this important? It’s happening everywhere, and it has real impact on perceptions and decision-making.

Do you notice semantic smuggling around you? Reply to this email with some examples—I’m curious to hear them!

🕶️ Other cool things

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📖 Long, worthwhile read: A Brief History of the Corporation

A classic by the great Venkatesh Rao. Pull quote:

“If you thought it was bad enough that Dick Cheney used to work for Halliburton before he took office, imagine if he’d worked there while in office, with legitimate authority to use his government power to favor his corporate employer and make as much money on the side as he wanted, and call in the Army and Navy to enforce his will. That picture gives you an idea of the position Robert Clive found himself in, in 1757.”

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