Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

Readers, I cannot tell a lie. It was I who cut down that cherry tree.

What did the above statement mean to you? Some people might see it as a sort of confession, my confessing to an act that you might not have been aware of, but without much in the way of context. However, for the readers versed in American history and mythology, that statement likely evoked the words of George Washington, declaring to his father that he chopped down a cherry tree and being a shining pillar of honesty in the process. So, perhaps the question for them was twofold: Why is he talking about this, and why is he pretending to be George Washington?

Well, not to disappoint, but I’ve never cut down a cherry tree, and, considering that the statement was false, I apparently can tell a lie. However, I can prove a point with it as well. For those who were familiar with George Washington’s quotation, that statement had an entirely different meaning than for those of you who missed the reference. At least a part of the meaning in that statement was dependent on your knowing something about the background behind my word choice.

Now, imagine you walk up to a coworker, relieved at the successful conclusion of a long, drawn out project. Smiling, you enthusiastically proclaim “It’s over!!” He stares at you for a second, and promptly breaks into tears and runs off to the men’s room. You just stand, mortified, unsure what you said or did to get such a reaction, until later, he comes back, still teary eyed, and explains that only a week ago, his now ex-wife had used those same words as she presented him with unexpected divorce papers, and that your using the unintentionally called back on that. He explains that he too is happy that the project is over, and apologizes for the breakdown.

There’s really nobody at fault here, this was just an unfortunate usage of a phrase which had a different meaning to each party in the communication. This is also a very extreme example, but still, it emphasizes the fact that meaning and connotation of words can be very individual, even on top of the widely agreed “definition” among speakers.

One man’s dog…

When you walk up to a person on the street and mention the term “dog”, their interpretation will be very different depending on their life experiences. Whereas one person with a phobia might get apprehensive, a veterinarian might smile or show concern, another person might think of Sparky, their childhood pet, and a dog breeder might start picturing a specific breed or characteristic. It’s unlikely that somebody would think of one characteristic or image to the point where they wouldn’t get the reference to a generic domesticated canine, but it’s also very unlikely that a person would only see a generic, faceless, breedless dog with no connotation.

I’m sure there are some voices in semantic theory that would disagree (and they’re welcome to comment or email me to let me post their opinion), but often, the “meaning” of a word for every individual person is the sum of their past experiences with that word and what it might have symbolized. If a child got bitten by a dog, the word “dog” might have a terrible connotation the week after, but if they were to go on to work at an animal hospital, that connotation might be replaced or altered.

One could pretend that all words have a nice, easy, abstract meaning, found in the dictionary and independent of the people using it. However, in practice, every word has both a general meaning, shared by most speakers of the language, and then a more individual shade of meaning, unique to their experiences. Knowing the context, both in which you’ll use a word, and in which the listener will hear it, is vital to understanding what to say, when.

This is easier said than done, of course, because you can very seldom get in the head of your listener to know just what a given word means to them. However, it’s always worth keeping in mind, because once you do, saying “I am glad for the successful completion of our newest project” to your newly divorced co-worker doesn’t sound nearly as awkward, does it?

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