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November 30th, 2018

No really, what is it?


We use them near incessantly, but the absence of an immediate definition when asked is a bit uncanny.


What exactly is this thing that we use constantly, with others and ourselves?


The dictionary defines a word as “a single distinct meaningful element of speech or writing” and the etymology seems to point towards the verbs ‘to speak, or say’.


Clearly its something that we first started doing with our vocal chords to make sound and then we figured out ways to transpile it into other equivalent forms, like writing.  But still, these are circumstantial aspects.  What exactly is a ‘meaningful element’ as pulled from the definition.


Meaning itself is always explained and extrapolated by the use of a whole lot more other words.  The elusive nature of some kind of core of meaning here can be a bit unsettling, like the search for some kind of intrinsic self. In many religions the word ‘soul’ is used, but go looking for one and it’s quite difficult to find, at least compared to say looking for a cloud, or sunshine, or a person, or a Higgs Bosun Particle.  While it’s beyond the current scope to wonder productively about the relationship between soul and a person, it is curious to wonder if the word ‘soul’ is functioning in much the same way that a whole bunch of other words need to be recruited to establish the meaning of any given word, hence definitions.  For a moment, this sounds like some sort of Ponzi scheme.  Perhaps it is.


What a word primarily does is encapsulate a relationship.  That wordy definition that calls upon all sorts of other words in order to define something is in essence extrapolating the relationship that the word symbolizes using a whole bunch of other words in relation to one another.  


A transitive verb is a good place to explore this.  A transitive verb is simply an action from one object to another.  He poured the coffee, for example describes a relationship between a person and the coffee.  That person does something to the coffee.


But what about a word like coffee?  That’s just a thing, so how is it a relationship?


This requires a step back.  The word coffee, whether heard (by my voice) or read on a screen is not the black bitter liquid that many people drink in the morning to try and jumpstart their haggard brain.  It is either a distinct pattern of sound waves or it is a distinct set of shapes pulled from the alphabet and arranged in the correct order.  If that bitter black liquid was somehow actually manifested every time the word coffee were said or written, we’d have a very strange mess on our hands.  What a word like ‘coffee’ actually does is define a common relationship to reality between people who are familiar with the word.  The word coffee has more to do with talking to each other than it has to do with our actual experience of coffee.


Another way of thinking about word as relationship is to think about university studies.  Somehow, words are being added to each discipline.  Why is this?  As we investigate subjects, the relationships between things become more nuanced.  What this means is that we discover a complexity of relationships inside of relationships, and so our need to describe them arises and a word is born.


We might, for example think about the relationships between people for a moment.  We can describe two people as ‘married’, and that is a very easy way of thinking of a word as a relationship.  But if we take those same two people and place them inside a Truman Show like experiment and watch all of their personal interactions, we might walk away from that voyeurism and say that their relationship is more complicated than previously thought.  The word ‘married’ might not be plump enough to fit every way we see them relate and interact with one another.


Research, in some ways is akin to taking a subject and putting it in that Truman Show like experiment and observing it with a greater degree of attention.  We can again look at the institution of university and realize that the whole darn thing is actually a gargantuan vocabulary lesson.


Before departing from this wordy subject, its important to note the movement inherent in nearly every level of this ponderism.  Relationships are perhaps more productively thought of as processes and not necessarily static objects.  Words shift in their meanings as their use is stretched and moved.  We might be tempted to think of language as a kind of rich tapestry of woven concepts, the placement and weave of each strand denoting the relationships words seek to symbolize.  But this is static.  We are better to think of language as thick vines, weaving in and around one another, growing in all directions, attempting to cover the world, lacing into it at every point and spreading to try and encompass everything. 


What is left to wonder is how language changes the things it seeks to describe.  We might even be tempted to view language as a kind of virus that infects our brains and appropriates our bodies in order to change the environment around us and consequently, the world.  Virus is such a negative word though.  We might be tempted to redefine the relationship we have to language.  Perhaps it is a symbiotic relationship.  It is a nearly infinitely malleable tool that can be refashioned. 


Are you getting everything out of your relationship with language that you could?

Check out the Tinkered Thinking   Reading List

Dive in to the Archives

Podcast Ep. 229: What is a Word?

Tinkered Thinking

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