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Cracker Barrel: Making meaning

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less." "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things." "The question is," sa...

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master - that's all."

These often-quoted lines from Lewis Carroll's "Through the Looking-Glass" came to me the other day while marveling at a wedge of geese cleaving their way through a cloudless sky. The day was one of those perfect creations that make you know without doubt that life is good, that the world will survive, that being here alive on planet Earth is cause for relentless celebration.

And then I overheard two people walking by say how sad it was that summer was gone and that winter would soon overcome us.

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The clash of perceptions set me to thinking of Alice and Humpty Dumpty, and reminded me once again of the way we construct the meanings in our lives.

In winter a 40-degree day is apt to make you happy and hot. A few months later the same 40 degrees probably makes you sullen and shivery. The days are the same; our expectations - and hence our "meanings" - differ wildly.

The fact, which we often unconsciously hide from ourselves, is that meaning does not reside in objective realities, in things as they are "out there." Nor does meaning reside in words. Two people can react very differently to the same word. (Try a short experiment. Enlist a partner and compare your reactions to the following words: oatmeal, Republican, Toyota, liver, bourbon, purple, gay.)

Meaning is in people. Whatever meanings words have are assigned or ascribed to them by people. What's more, people can't assign meanings that they don't already have in their experience. A word and its referent that are beyond one's experience are meaningless, which is why true communication is so difficult and so rare.

And to make matters worse, words themselves are not the thing to which they refer. To English speakers, a potato is a potato, but to Germans it's a kartoffel. The actual object (or idea or emotion) is one thing; the word is another. This is so obvious that it's very easy to overlook, especially when it comes to words for ideas.

The word "patriotism," for instance, means a lot of different things to different people. When we forget that the meaning of a word is something we bring to it, it gets very easy to find fault with others whose meanings differ from ours.

We humans, in short, are meaning makers. It's one of our greatest gifts - and one of the easiest to misuse. Whenever we mistake our meanings for reality itself, or forget that words are not the same as the things to which they refer, we run the real risk of setting ourselves up as little gods, sitting in judgment on others who just don't seem to "get it."

Got it?

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Collections of Craig Nagel's columns are available at CraigNagelBooks.com

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