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How Big Is A Dog?

In most of the classes I have taught at Cornell or UCLA, I’ve illustrated the individual perceptions of words by asking students to close their eyes (yes I look for cheaters) and hold out their hands to indicate how big the word  “dog” means to them.

When they open their eyes, they see hands ranging from the size of a Chihuahua to that of St. Bernards.

“That doesn’t work because ‘dog’ is too general a word,” a bright student usually points out. “Perhaps naming a breed would work better?”

So I repeat the experiment by asking how big is a poodle.

Pretty much the same result as some think toy poodle and others describe the heft of the original French hunting dog.

Then I say, “if you want to be accurate, be very specific.”

So, I ask them to indicate the size of a Leonberger. Puzzled looks. Some try to make a guess. Many sit on their hands.


Leonberger. Click image to enlarge. Image from Reddit

The breed I chose was so specific that few people knew what it meant.

Experience, education, culture, life experience.


General. More Specific. Very specific.

Fruity. Tropical Fruit. Cattley Guava

Tart. Citrus. Buddha’s Hand Citron


Not only is the taster’s perception shaped by genetics (Genetic Chaos Mandates New Look At How Wine Gets Recommended) but experience and vocabulary shapes the description. As mentioned in that article link, above, different people have different sets of receptors for smell and taste.

There is no guarantee that a dozen people with the same experience and vocabulary who taste the same wine will describe it the same way.

Who is “right?” They all are.