Defining Abstract Words

PROCEDURE. The words to be defined are _pity_, _revenge_, _charity_,

_envy_, and _justice_. The formula is, "_What is pity? What do we mean

by pity?_" and so on with the other words. If the meaning of the

response is not clear, ask the subject to explain what he means. If the

definition is in terms of the word itself, as "Pity means to pity

someone," "Revenge is to take revenge," etc., it is then necessary to

say: "_Ye
, but what does it mean to pity some one?_" or, "_What does it

mean to take revenge?_" etc. Only supplementary questions of this kind

are permissible.

SCORING. The test is passed if _three of the five_ words are

satisfactorily defined. The definition need not be strictly logical nor

the language elegant. It is sufficient if the definition shows that the

meaning of the word is known. Definitions which define by means of an

illustration are acceptable. The following are samples of satisfactory

and unsatisfactory responses:--

(a) _Pity_

_Satisfactory._ "To be sorry for some one." "To feel

compassion." "To have sympathy for a person." "To feel bad for

some one." "It means you help a person out and don't like to

have him suffer." "To have a feeling for people when they are

treated wrong." "If anybody gets hurt real bad you pity them."

"It's when you feel sorry for a tramp and give him something to

eat." "If some one is in trouble and you know how it feels to be

in that condition, you pity him." "You see something that's

wrong and have your feeling aroused."

Of 130 correct responses, 85, or 65 per cent, defined _pity_ as

"to feel sorry for some one," or words to that effect. Less than

10 per cent defined by means of illustration.

_Unsatisfactory._ "To think of the poor." "To be good to

others." "To help." "It means sorrow." "Mercy." "To cheer people

up." "It means 'What a pity!'" "To be ashamed." "To be sick or

poor." "It's when you break something."

Apart from inability to reply, which accounts for nearly one

fourth of the failures, there is no predominant type of

unsatisfactory response.

(b) _Revenge_

_Satisfactory._ "To get even with some one." "To get back on

him." "To do something to the one who has done something to

you." "To hurt them back." "To pay it back," or "Do something

back." "To do something mean in return." "To square up with a

person." "When somebody slaps you, you slap back." "You kill a

person if he does something to you."

The expression "to get even" was found in 42 per cent of 120

correct answers; "to pay it back," or "To do something back," in

20 per cent; "To get back on him," in 17 per cent. About

8 per cent were illustrations.

_Unsatisfactory._ "To be mad." "You try to hurt them." "To

fight." "You hate a person." "To kill them." "It means hateful."

"To try again." "To think evil of some one." "To hate some one

who has done you wrong." "To let a person off." "To go away from


Inability to reply accounts for a little over 40 per cent of the


(c) _Charity_

_Satisfactory._ "To give to the poor." "To help those who are

needy." "It is charity if you are poor and somebody helps you."

"To give to somebody without pay."

Of 110 correct replies, 72 per cent were worded substantially

like the first or second given above.

_Unsatisfactory._ "A person who helps the poor." "A place where

poor people get food and things." "It is a good life." "To be

happy." "To be poor." "Charity is being treated good." "It is to

be charitable." "Charity is selling something that is not worth

much." "It means to be good" or "to be kind."

When the last named response is given, we should say: "_Explain

what you mean._" If this brings an amplification of the response

to "It means to do things for the poor," or the equivalent, the

score is _plus_. "Charity means love" is also _minus_ if the

statement cannot be further explained and is merely rote memory

of the passage in the 13th chapter of 1st Corinthians. Simply

"To help" or "To give" is unsatisfactory. Half of the failures

are due to inability to reply.

(d) _Envy_

_Satisfactory._ "You envy some one who has something you want."

"It's the way you feel when you see some one with something

nicer than you have." "It's when a poor girl sees a rich girl

with nice dresses and things." "You hate some one because

they've got something you want." "Jealousy" (satisfactory if

subject can explain what _jealousy_ means; otherwise it is

_minus_). "It's when you see a person better off than you are."

Nearly three fourths of the correct responses say in substance,

"You envy a person who has something you want." Most of the

others are concrete illustrations.

_Unsatisfactory._ "To hate some one," or simply "To hate." "You

don't like 'em." "Bad feeling toward any one." "To be a great

man or woman." "Not to be nice to people." "What we do to our


Inability to respond accounts for 55 per cent of the failures.

(e) _Justice_

_Satisfactory._ "To give people what they deserve." "It means

that everybody is treated the same way, whether he is rich or

poor." "It's what you get when you go to court." "If one does

something and gets punished, that's justice." "To do the square

thing." "To give everybody his dues." "Let every one have what's

coming to him." "To do the right thing by any one." "If two

people do the same thing and they let one go without punishing,

that is not justice."

Approximately 38 per cent of 102 correct responses referred to

treating everybody the same way; 25 per cent to "doing the

square thing", 12 per cent were concrete illustrations; and

4 per cent were definitions of what justice is not.

_Unsatisfactory._ "It means to have peace." "It is where they

have court." "It's the Courthouse." "To be honest." "Where one

is just" (_minus_, unless further explained). "To do right"

(_minus_, unless in explaining _right_ the subject gives a

definition of _justice_).

It is very necessary, in case of such answers as "Justice is to

do right," "To be just," etc., that the subject be urged to

explain further what he means. "To do right" includes nearly

12 per cent of all answers, and is given by the very brightest

children. Most of these are able, when urged, to complete the

definition in a satisfactory manner.

REMARKS. The reader may be surprised that the ability to define common

abstract words should develop so late. Most children who have had

anything like ordinary home or school environment have doubtless heard

all of these words countless times before the age of 12 years.

Nevertheless, the statistics from the test show unmistakably that before

this age such words have but limited and vague meaning. Other vocabulary

studies confirm this fact so completely that we may say there is hardly

any trait in which 12- to 14-year intelligence more uniformly excels

that of the 9- or 10-year level.

This is readily understandable when we consider the nature of abstract

meanings and the intellectual processes by which we arrive at them.

Unlike such words as _tree_, _house_, etc., the ideas they contain are

not the immediate result of perceptual processes, in which even childish

intelligence is adept, but are a refined and secondary product of

relationships between other ideas. They require the logical processes of

comparison, abstraction, and generalization. One cannot see justice, for

example, but one is often confronted with situations in which justice or

injustice is an element; and given a certain degree of abstraction and

generalization, out of such situations the idea of justice will

gradually be evolved.

The formation and use of abstract ideas, of one kind or another,

represent, _par excellence_, the "higher thought processes." It is not

without significance that delinquents who test near the border-line of

mental deficiency show such inferior ability in arriving at correct

generalizations regarding matters of social and moral relationships. We

cannot expect a mind of defective generalizing ability to form very

definite or correct notions about justice, law, fairness, ownership

rights, etc.; and if the ideas themselves are not fairly clear, the

rules of conduct based upon them cannot make a very powerful appeal.

Binet used the words _charity_, _justice_, and _kindness_, and required

two successes. In the 1911 revision he shifted the test from year XI to

year XII, where it more nearly belongs. Goddard also places it in

year XII and uses Binet's words, translating _bonte_, however, as

_goodness_ instead of _kindness_. Kuhlmann retains the test in year XI

and adds _bravery_ and _revenge_, requiring three correct definitions

out of five. Bobertag uses _pity_, _envy_, and _justice_, requires two

correct definitions, and finds the test just hard enough for year XII.

After using the words _goodness_ and _kindness_ in two series of tests,

we have discarded them as objectionable in that they give rise to so

many doubtful definitions. Even intelligent children often say:

"Goodness means to do something good," "Kindness means to be kind to

some one," etc. These definitions in a circle occur less than half as

often with _pity_, _revenge_, and _envy_, which are also superior to

_charity_ and _justice_ in this respect.

The relative difficulty of our five words is indicated by the order in

which we have listed them in the test (i.e., beginning with the easiest

and ending with the hardest). On the standard of three correct

definitions, these words fit very accurately in year XII.