Working in the advertising technology space, I’m a regular reader of, one of the industry’s leading trade publications. I usually read AdExchanger’s daily newsletter on my subway ride to work and I feel like they do a pretty good job of keeping me up to date on the latest industry news and developments (and sometimes, the latest gossip).

Recently, AdExchanger launched a series of articles where they ask industry executives to define new industry terms.

Here are a few examples:

I found these articles very interesting.  Outside of the fact that all of the answers are different (and at times comically discrepant), I also noticed that they were packed with industry jargon, three letter acronyms, and obtuse analogies.  And best yet – all of the respondents seemed equally certain that they had the correct understanding of the term at hand.

All this talk about the definition of words brings me back to the sixth grade.  I was sitting in class listening to a lecture on Noah Webster and the publication of the first American dictionary.  Midway through the class, one of my peers raised their hand and asked inquisitively how Webster came up with the content of his dictionary – how did he know the definitions to all the words?  This question resonated with me as well.  Up to that point in my life, the dictionary had been the source of truth for the meanings of words.  Without a dictionary, how could you possibly write a dictionary?  The catch-22 was almost too much for my 11-year-old brain to handle.  The answer was simple: Webster filled his dictionary with definitions derived from how people used words.

This revelation hit hard and froze in my memory: the definitions of words are dictated by the way the people use them.

In the world of ad tech it’s tough to keep up with all of the new words and terms being invented each year.  In some ways, the pace of innovation forces us all to play the role of Noah Webster and invent the definitions of these words as we hear them.  One big problem here is that it’s tough to be objective.  When I hear a new term, let’s say “Programmatic Buying,” I summon up all of my past connections to these words (as they’ve lived in my life) and conclude the precise definition of the term.  The problem here is that everyone else is doing the same thing and everyone has had different life experiences.  This leads us all to arrive at a different, yet precise, definition of each term – and at the same time leaves us equally certain that we each hold the one true definition.

The whole thing is a bit silly.

In the end the ad tech industry needs to realize what Noah Webster knew 200 years ago – words mean nothing unless we all agree on the meaning.

Programmatic Buying and the Meaning of Words