Commentary on the birth of words,
and the impact of words on our world
Dorian Scott Cole
Copyright © 1997 - 2001 By Dorian Scott Cole
Distribution Notice: This book is not public domain and may not be distributed in any form in any media, including print or electronic, and may not be included in any collections for distribution in any media. Individual readers may make a printed copy for personal use as long as the copyright notice remains on the work.
Language Is Personal
Implying either sexual appetite or a wish, the meaning of the word "desire" depends on with whom you are talking. Is that a problem? Sometimes. We tend to form isolated groups of people who use words in our own specialized ways. This leads to a problem in communication in that a sentence spoken in plain English by one person, may mean something entirely different to a writer whose restrictive use of words from bias, target audience, and specialization, has created an entirely different lexicon of dubious value for general communication.
Privies and Other Embarrassing Words
Going into a word is not like going into a building. I have been summoned to buildings and learned upon entering that the address I was given was the men's room. Joke? Comment? Mistake? Prophecy? I was never really sure. But most of the time entering a building is a relatively predictable experience.
Not so with entering words. Every once in a while I write a word and then wonder if I have flushed myself down the toilet. I rush to a dictionary to see if I have actually said what I meant. This is the way it was with "privy." I wrote an article on the www.VisualWriter.com Web site, referencing the Socratic Method, and hastening to say that I wasn't privvy to the inner sanctums of academicians in the educational system.
Fortunately I had ceased putting a double c in academic, which would have made my point for me. Learning to spell academic correctly took me many years - I learn just somewhat faster than an earthworm. If I once misspell a word, it remains fixed in my memory forever under the incorrect spelling. As I proofread, when I remember to proofread, I say, "That looks right - that's the way I spelled it last time."
At thirty-five years removed from an English class, my interest in words doesn't stem from a lifelong fetish for strangulating prose with rules. My interest comes from using words to communicate ideas, plus a curiosity about what makes our world work. Often it's amusing.
I'm not an academician, or even the best communicator, and it is neither my purpose here to instruct nor to showcase my prose. It is my purpose to come to a better understanding about these tools we use for communication, and to stimulate others' interest about the influence of words in our world. Words influence how we understand our problems, and how we understand the meaning of our lives and the events within them. Each word that we use can make a world of difference.
Some of the fields this book touches on are semiotics, linguistics, lexicography, and cognitive psychology, which includes artificial intelligence. My fervent hope is to communicate ideas that open windows to new understandings, and to stimulate the readers' interest in these subjects so that they become better communicators than I.
This book touches on many fields in which I am not an expert. I won't apologize for being a generalist and taking a cross-disciplinary approach without becoming an "expert" in each of these fields. I think it is very appropriate for a communicator to have broad comprehension (but not shallow knowledge) of an ever widening array of subjects. The resulting perspective enables greater understanding of the complexity of the human condition and the human experience with which we all wrestle. This is the substance of communications.
As a writer, I want to communicate ideas, not struggle endlessly with spelling and grammar. I think conceptually rather than by rules. Orthography, which I learned in elementary school, makes perfect sense to me. Orthography is basically about correct spelling, but in older traditions it taught where parts of words came from, and what those word parts meant. The prefix, root, and suffix of a word each mean something, so you can put the three together and have a word. What more do you need to know? Well...
That and which have me conquered. I have looked up the proper usage once a month for over thirty years. I finally came to the realization that that can be left out at least 50% of the time and no one even notices. That is a completely unnecessary word that only clutters up the landscape. Throw it away and that's 50% fewer times for which you must look it up.1
Oh, yes, back to the word privy. After writing the article with the word privy in it and posting it on the Web site to immortalize my ignorance for the entire world to gawk at, I happened to think, "How do you spell privy? Are there two spellings, one meaning private and one meaning toilet? Did I actually refer to myself as the toilet in the academics' inner sanctum? Aargh!
Dictionary: one v in privy.
I looked at the article - I had made it a two-seater:
Fortunately the word could have either meaning, depending on the academic's perspective.
I don't use the word privy regularly, not every month - I can excuse that one. But even the most mundane words that are in daily usage can have terrifying things in them. Read on.
In the same day I might write marketing and technical literature, a play or novel, an article, instruction, and non-fiction. Each form has its own set of rules, style, and vocabulary which are knocking around in my head trying not to feel lonely. It takes some effort to keep them straight.
For example, after being informed that the word "desire" is persona non grata in technical writing because it might have sexual connotations for some, I have been looking at other replacement words and I am so astonished by what I have found that I am actually starting a petition drive to drum the word want out of technical writing.
The first definition of want is: "To desire greatly." So if desire is a promiscuous word that can conjure up such wantonly lustful images that people actually feel threatened by it, then want has to be total debauchery. I found this word fifteen times in one article. I have actually been using this word in front of my kids! Shudder.
What to use for a replacement? I might find a replacement in the dictionary definitions for desire and want. I checked. Both desire and want have wish as primary meanings. Maybe wish, as impotent and whimsical a word as it is, could be the replacement. So I looked up wish... Yech! The first definition of wish is - shudder - "desire!"
OK, I have it! (Another digression: Notice the absence of the construction "I've got it!" Got is an ugly little word2 that is redundant when used with the word have. I have formerly campaigned to have got kicked out of the English language, but it seems the English speaking world isn't sympathetic to my crusade - everyone now is saying "I've got, you've got, we've got!" So much for purity).
So anyway, for the words "desire, want," and "wish," we can substitute the all purpose letter X to symbolize what the user has on his mind. No, wait. X is too much like X-rated - we can't have that. Maybe R... no that could mean R-rated which is still kind of racy.
Let's start at the beginning of the alphabet. A. No, someone might take that as an abbreviation for Ass. B. Butt... Forget that. It seems some readers have only one thing on their mind: sex. No matter what we write, someone is going to take it the wrong way.
OK, we should give readers a choice so they can find a word that suits them. We can try the following construction:
"Select the item that you want, need, desire, wish for, or ____."
... Eh, maybe not. They may be so hot and bothered when they reach the end of that sentence that we'll have to dump a pail of water on them to cool them off. Some people just take everything the wrong way.
Chapter I Footnotes
1. That is restrictive of the antecedent. Which comments on the antecedent, According to The Random House Handbook by Frederick Crews.
2. The columnist, James Kilpatrick, for years wrote a weekly newspaper column, The Writer's Art. (It's also in book form, and now appears on the Internet.) He once called got "...an ugly little word."
The ancients were right, you know, about speaking things into existence. Once you unleash a word verbally, the effect is permanent. Were they really onto something? If we say something, or think something, do we somehow create the universe? Well... maybe. I guess the downside is, some of us should watch what we say.
How Words Take on Meaning
We're not at all sure what words mean, not even the common words that we use every day such as "want" and "desire," as we saw in the last chapter. Every word gets a little different spin from each of us.
I could create a new word right here! Logoplastycism. My spell checker tells me this word is not used in the English language… not today anyway. I am looking nervously over my shoulder, trying to detect any shift in the universe. For the moment there seems to be none. (Although a few weeks later I noticed the appearance of a new game, Smush, that uses a similar concept.)
This is fun; I'm a word god... except my word has no real meaning. So let's give it a meaning. Logoplastycism means: "the theory of molding new words with surgical precision." We can even give it a sense of relationship. Words have "roots." The roots of this new word are "logo," "plasm," and "ism.")
Now that I have formed a word and given it a temporary meaning, what does this word really mean? We think we know because we just read the definition in the last paragraph. But, does logoplastycism mean to cut words in half with a knife and mold them back together on a piece of paper? Does it mean to take individual letters and form them into a word? Does it mean to take other words and form them into a word? Does it mean all three?
We don't know. And this is a very telling thing about words. Words have no inherent meaning, and even defining them with other words doesn't actually give them a meaning. Dictionaries, for all of the wonder that they are, must give examples of words in a context of usage. That is, they use the word in an example sentence. It is the experience of using a word, and context, that begin to give it meaning.
For example, "The young man watched the logoplasticist with awe as he took other words and precisely formed them into one new word, in a graceful demonstration of logoplasticism." But logoplasticism only means to form a word, it doesn't mean to give the word meaning. Let's not go there.
Put a word in a sentence and we understand it better by context, but not fully. We really only understand words through experience. Experience isn't just repeating the word over and over - experience is applying the word, often exploring the areas that define it. For example, the people who collect word usages and create definitions would undoubtedly find many things wrong with my example sentence in the preceding paragraph. I don't have the experience to know all of the ins and outs of doing it properly.
So the dictionary can tell us the meaning of words, but is the dictionary the mother of all words? No. Dictionaries don't prescribe how we are to use language. Dictionaries simply capture how we do use language.
According to Encyclopedia Britannica, an early lexicographer Samuel Johnson, "Worried that changes in a language caused it to decay and hoped that a dictionary would check that decay. But he realized as he worked that 'language is the work of man, of a being from whom permanence and stability cannot be derived.' The makers of dictionaries, lexicographers, can only describe current and past language; they cannot prescribe its use."
So, how do words get into the dictionary? According to the word at Merriam Webster (http://www.m-w.com/about/wordin.htm), birth into their dictionary is primarily dependent on usage, and the birthing rite is a process that looks at two things: 1) which words are used frequently, and 2) how they are used. This process includes looking at many examples of the usage of a new word, and also noting the context in which the word is used. These elements are used to distill a definition.
Creating definitions through usage isn't a license to misuse language. Most of the time most of us communicate using known words and by their known meanings.
Before the lexicographers even take note of a new word, how do words begin? Words originate not by definition (except in the case of stipulative definitions), but by a number of factors.
There may be many factors which lexicographers have cited in their work, but the factors which I believe are relevant include:
- Symbols and experience
- Cultural meaning
- Meaning migration
Write This Way
The best way to write is to communicate clearly.
English Is Confusing Even as a First Language!
I used to be really interested in the etymology of words and had access to a great dictionary that gave the history of each word. Most English words actually came from other languages: Greek, Latin, German, French, Spanish, Native American, and a host of others.
So from these different languages we have inherited numerous ways to construct language, and to be perfectly correct we must know the syntax of every one of them. Right? Aargh!
In elementary school I spent days conjugating verbs. I became so good at conjugating, I hardly paid attention. One day as we went around the class doing a very simple conjugation. Sing: sing, sang, sung. The person ahead of me did ring: ring, rang, rung. My turn. Bring. Bring, brang, brung. I burned and sank in my seat as the entire class laughed at me.
Sometime after elementary school, I learned ancient Greek. In English we make words past tense simply by adding "ed" onto a word, but in Greek, the imperfect tense (past) involves both a prefix and a suffix on the verb. The Greeks had cases we don't even know about. Durative case is a repetitive past action (one that continued), while imperfect (past tense) also means it may not have been completed.
For example, in the biblical phrase, "In the beginning was the Word...," the word was doesn't refer to a moment in the past, but to an indeterminate period of time. I suppose that facing the daunting task of learning all of these cases, the average ancient Greek kid took until age twenty to learn all of the language cases. Verb conjugation was durative and imperfect.
All of this verb conjugation was very important, right? Well, when I tried to put "will have done" in a tutorial, the editor threw it out. In fact, when I put "The program will automatically catch the error..." the editor advised: "The program automatically catches..." Hmmm. I had become so learned in elementary school that I nearly "learned" myself out of the writing profession. Verb conjugation? Skip it - it can be hazardous to your career.
We make endless rules for English, and then post exceptions, and then exceptions to the exceptions, like the fine print in a legal document. "I before e, except after c; except in weird, which is... weird."
We create grammatical rules apparently just so we can break them. For example, teachers teach, and the past tense of teach is taught. Why then have preachers preached and not praught? Well, some of them do prate (Old English, I think), which is to talk idly and at length. But then, all of us prattle a lot. Why not just ask the language gods to change all past tense endings to "ed?" Teached?
Well, even that would get us in trouble. Ed doesn't always mean past tense. For example, you can be left-handed, right-handed, redhanded, righted, yellow-bellied, and red-headed. Where did these come from?
With all of this language confusion, it is a wonder any of us bother to write at all. Someone on the Internet reported James Kilpatrick said in a speech to them, "Why do we write? There is one purpose only: to communicate an idea ... clearly and understandably." Yep.
In editing or evaluating other people's writing, this has been my guiding principle for years. In most situations, the most important rule of writing is to communicate clearly. Having accomplished that, rules and style make very little difference except to venue.
The phrase "Red-headed woodpecker is a sign." A sign is simply a reference to something else.
Referents: Signifiers and Symbols
The phrase "Red-headed woodpecker" is a sign. Words are first of all signs, signifiers. Signifiers point to something. They denote what is indicated. (Denote means to signify directly. )
Words don't have any inherent meaning, they just point to something else. But what does a word point to? If the word is "chair" we understand that the word points to a chair. We learn to associate the word with the thing that people sit on (or in, if you prefer). But the word chair doesn't point to a specific chair. In a sense, it points to all things known as chairs.
But what if the word is an abstract word and exists only in peoples' heads. What does the signifier point to then? It points to the meaning that is within us, that is, the experiences that make up all that we know about the word. But the signifier doesn't just point to the meaning in one person's head, it points to the meanings in everyone's heads.
It is well recognized that an interesting problem occurs when you try to make a signifier point to verbs, prepositions, articles, and so forth. Quick, point to "is." Now point to "as" and "but." Now "the" or "a." These words are only understood experientially.
Words are also symbols. Symbols connote meaning. (Connote means to suggest or imply.) Words are not symbols as in the dictionary definition of symbols (to represent something else), but symbols in the sense discussed by Theologian Paul Tillich. Like a signifier, a symbol points to something, but unlike a signifier, a symbol also "participates in that to which it points."1
An easy example of this is evident in the feeling that the actor creates within audience members. The actor, and the character he plays, become a symbol.
Even though an act isn't real, we react to a degree as if it is. As the actor dramatizes a fictitious experience, the audience reacts emotionally to the experience as if it is real. Years later, remembering the character or even the actor can evoke the memories and emotional responses evoked by the original viewing. The actor and character are symbols that participate in the experience for the viewer, and would be difficult to separate from it.
For example, I know that Jimmy Stewart was an actor who I saw in many films. But his image evokes memories and original feelings associated with the film, It's A Wonderful Life. In the film industry, this is known as "typecasting," and this makes it difficult for stars to move beyond their image.
Eugene Gendlin explored the role of symbols in pointing to experiences within us.2 Gendlin showed how words symbolize within us individual experiences that provide depth of meaning for the word. Each word points to a number of experiences within us that provide experiential meaning for the word.
I will further Tillich's and Gendlin's description by saying that symbols actually participate in experience in a number of ways. For example, by pointing to an experience, does the word dance mean that I am dancing with the word dance? Yes. I can just see me now out on the dance floor, whirling around with the word dance. Not. By this I mean that the word dance has a different meaning for everyone that varies according to the experiences he has had, including watching others dance and hearing others tell about dance.
For some dance might mean ballroom dancing, the waltz, swing, or two-step. For others it might mean the sixties style Pony or Mashed Potato. Still others might consider dance to mean free form movement, ballet, some movement an insect does, various Latin dances, or aerobic dance. To a dance instructor it might mean all of these.
By connecting to experiences within an individual, the word dance may not only evoke a mental picture of dance, it may even evoke memories and physical and emotional feelings associated with dancing. In the same way that the memory of an actor evokes the emotion of a memorable role, the word dance participates in the experience of dance.
While words point to experiences within us, they also participate by helping to form experience. For example, when a young child hurts himself and cries, the mother may say, "Ouch" in a soothing way, kiss the hurt hand, and treat any wound. The child has gained emotional support and gotten the wound healed.
After a few hurts, the child then goes to the mother saying, "Ouch!" and may not be crying at all. Saying the word ouch has become a mediating experience that symbolizes the expectation of comfort. Saying "Ouch" can be a substitute for crying (carries with it the expectation of comfort), and has become a vehicle for getting comfort by saying it to the mother.
So the word ouch very actively participates in the experience. Words form an anchor around which can form the many experiences that give the word meaning.
In fact, we can even change our immediate feelings and disposition simply by our choice of words. If we say that we are unhappy or sick, then we actually begin to feel that way. If we say that we are happy and well, then we actually begin to feel that way. Our words gather around them those experiences that they refer to and make them foremost in our psyches. Words are symbols, participating in our experience.
Imagine the impact of every day telling yourself that you are happy or unhappy. Imagine the impact of everyone in financial circles telling themselves and others that the market is bearish or bullish. How will they approach the market? We literally can speak our world into existence - not the physical objects - but our mental state that forms our reality.
To further illustrate how words communicate different things by relating to or participating in different experiences, we can look at another common word, "radio." What do we mean by the word radio? It means very different things to different people, depending on their experience with radio.
Say radio to a radio announcer, and he may think of the field he works in, being behind a microphone talking to many people, picking out records that he thinks they will like, choosing news articles to read, reading advertisements, turning on the transmitter, etc.
Say radio to an electronics buff and he might think of the field in which he works, of transistors and amplifiers, and creating circuits with minimal feed-through, oscillators, frequencies, power, towers, electromagnetic waves, difficult engineering problems, and calls out in the middle of the night for failures. Each of these thoughts and feelings also unpacks into more thoughts and feelings.
Say radio to a listener, and he might think of music, an announcer's patter on the way to work, weather bulletins and bad weather experiences, and making love in the back of a car with the radio playing softly. Each of these thoughts and feelings also unpack into more thoughts and feelings.
Say radio to me, and I happen to think of all of these things. So when I say "radio" to another person, how does that word unpack for him? What experiences does it relate to within him? Does he receive the same message that I'm sending? Does he interpret the word radio as an announcer, or as an engineer, or as a listener?
Another way to look at this is, can we understand words in the same way, or even understand all of the implications of a word, without having experiences that give the word meaning? For example, can we understand the word can without experiences that form our idea of what is accomplishable? Do we need to have multiple experiences of accomplishing things before we can fully appreciate what the word can means? Probably.
Patterns are the currency of communications and understanding
It is through repeated experiences that a word becomes meaningful to us. Some repeating experiences are experienced by everyone, becoming common. These recurring patterns are the currency of communications, and in verbal communications are represented by words.
The dictionary makes it possible for us to "mass communicate" by giving us a tool (signifiers with definitions) so that all of us mean the same basic common thing by a word, even though none of us really ever use or understand a word in quite the same way.
As I indicate later in the section on usage, a word is a living thing which grows with the experience of a culture. Words participate in the culture's experience as a vehicle for meaning. Words not only transfer the original meaning from person to person through usage based on experience, they are the basis for metaphors, for new abstract meaning to describe new experience, and are the basis for meaning migration to describe new things through experience that is familiar.
Words open up new doors to understanding new concepts, and without new words we would be severely limited in conveying new ideas. We would be in a closed system where growth is unlikely.
France has elected to keep the French language pure and uncorrupted from the steady infiltration of words from other languages, especially from English. While I sympathize with the French, I can't help but wonder if French will become the next "dead" language, handed a death sentence by the very action meant to preserve it. I'm asking, not prophesying. Is it equally possible that not borrowing words from other languages will force French speakers to create new French words?
What does it take to kill an entire language? My wife says, "You - writing it to death." Dead languages are languages such as Latin which are no longer spoken by a civilization. Dead languages are displaced by other languages, such as by being conquered, or by enculturation by more dominant or pervasive cultures.
The language of the first civilization that recorded things in writing, Sumer, was unknown in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. It was as if this very influential civilization had never existed. The language of Sumer was dead before the time of Christ,3 its language displaced by other Middle Eastern languages, and only through archealogy has this great early civilization become known.
The great Roman Empire spoke Latin, as did the Catholic Church, but there is only a residue of Latin in the languages of today.
If a language can't grow with its people, then does it serve those people? Is it still capable of presenting new ideas, stimulating imagination, and opening new worlds of ideas? Interesting question. When we create a symbol for organizing experience, we speak our world into existence, affecting our approach to the world, and creating new understandings.
Chapter 4 Footnotes
1. Tillich, Paul. 1957. Dynamics Of Faith. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, Inc.
2. Gendlin, Eugene. 1962. Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning: A Philosophical and Psychological Approach to the Subjective. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.
3. Sumerian literature was written on clay tablets. Scholars believe that priests who could speak and read Emegir, the language of Ancient Sumer, still existed in Babylon at the time of Christ. Shortly thereafter even this ceased, and the language and civilization were completely forgotten. More information on the Sumerians can be found in, The Sumerians, Their History, Culture, and Character, by Samuel Noah Kramer.
CONTENTS | Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV
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