Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Writing and Meaning

Words have meaning, right? Sure they do, we all know that! We certainly use words, spoken or written, at all hours of the day and night to convey what we mean to other people. We know the meanings of many words, and if we don't know what a word means — heterolysis, for instance — we can look up its meaning in the dictionary: "the destruction of cells of one species by enzymes derived from cells of a different species."

Words and meaning, meaning and words: the two go together like ice cream and cake or hammer and nail: a combo familiar since childhood, a two-edged tool supremely useful for making our way in the world, twin advantages of being human that we've enjoyed ever since Adam and Eve strolled through Eden naming the abundant flora and fauna. Yet none of us truly know how word and meaning work in tandem. For all their centuries of use, and nearly as many centuries of study, the wedding of word and meaning remains a murky mystery.

When we utter a word — Wittgenstein called it  "striking a note on the keyboard of the imagination" — we make a vocal sound which we hope expresses a meaning that the people around us will understand. We presume that they'll accept the sound as a symbol, an equivalent, of some aspect of life, the same aspect we intended when we spoke.  Written words give us visual directions how to make the vocal sound that will conjure up what the writer wants the reader to experience.

Reading a word:

China

— unlocks its sound, and that sound sets off a symphony of word meanings resounding in the echoing chambers of our minds, tripping flashes in a gazillion brain cells, creating a vast assembled image of all the word means to us. In that one word we can see sights and hear sounds, taste tastes, smell smells, and touch a thousand silken textures. The word recalls taught facts and remembered faces. We sense in it the long history of a great portion of the earth and a great race of mankind. Often we might read the word quickly and pass on to the next word, but if fancy strikes us, we can explore any of the broad avenues China opens up, dwell on a detail and develop it in our imaginations — picturing the Great Wall clearly in our minds, for example, or remembering a delicious Chinese meal.

That's the first mystery: how can one word, China, contain and convey so much? Meaning, that's how. Along with giving words content, meaning gives words power. A word resounding within us releases the vast energies packed into its seed-like shape. Meaning means more than "just the facts, ma'am" definitions; meaning can shimmer with allusive poetry. Honey means bees and clover, summer rain and sunshine, golden sweetness; milk sings of cow and clover, mother and child, a warm barn on a winter night; together, milk and honey mean the happiness of a full and peaceful life.

But! — change one letter in China and get:

Chona

— a possible word I don't recognize, my brain draws a blank, an experience writing represents as:

?

Chona is not a word. Why? Because chona has no meaning. One measly vowel switched, and we've gone from relishing the rich images a fine old word can stir up to a meaningless sound that we greet with the "Huh?" of incomprehension. What does chona mean? Nothing!

Neither does chana, chena, or chuna mean anything in English. Or bhina, dhuna, thina, or rhuna; or for that matter, hinac, naich, cinha, or hanic. All these are possible words — manic and panic are words, for instance, so why not hanic? It's a word-like sound, but it isn't a word — yet! All it needs to become a word is for someone somewhere to call something a hanic — a sharp bit of clipped toenail, perhaps — and for other people to agree, okay, from now on hanic means a sharp bit of clipped toenail. Then hanic will have meaning, and I'd suggest to all husbands: if you trim your toenails in bed, don't leave any hanics where your spouse might roll over them in her sleep!

The next mystery: the link between word and meaning is nearly always arbitrary, based only on the ancient agreement that cat means "cat" and dog means "dog." True, onamatopoetic words like sneeze, cough, whoosh, and squelch get their meaning from the similarity of the word sound to the sound of the thing meant, and some pictographs resemble their meaning: the Chinese character ren which means "man" or "human," does resemble us stripped down to our two-legged essentials:

But few words are onamatopoetic, and letters are not pictographs. The sound of an English word seldom contains any hint of what it means. Nothing but eons of communal agreement make black black and white white. If we all agreed, black could mean "white," and white could mean "fireplace."

Words aren't the only communication symbols that link arbitrarily to their meaning. Why does shrugging our shoulders mean "I don't know"?  I don't know, I reply, shrugging my shoulders. To show amused skepticism, my Brazilian brother-in-law puts his right index finger below his right eye and gives lower lid a brief tug downward. Which means, sarcastically, "Yeah, right!" Why does the gesture mean that? I asked him. "Because everybody in Brazil knows what it means," he replied.

This random link between symbol and meaning may be one reason we come up with so few new words. Columnists talk about all the new words springing up in the Cyber Age (cyber being one of them!), but I am more struck by the put-put pace of new word coinage compared to the zooming speed of social change. When faced with something new to describe, we nearly always prefer to build the new word from old word roots: telephone, phonograph, transistor, computer; we seldom choose one of those orphaned almost-words like hanic or rhina and give them the life they long for. The randomness of the word/meaning link frightens us a bit; we fear that if in the whirl of onrushing time we abandoned tradition and started calling the Internet the haptarg or memory chips slabards, we'd drift off into outer word-space and never get home again.

Instead, whenever possible we recast old words to suit new meanings, and the word/meaning combo becomes language, a self-replicating web, a virtual mirror image of the world, a verbal double helix of sound and meaning that accompanies us on our spiral path down through the ages. The link between word and meaning grows and changes as we grow and change, helping us keep an unbroken continuity to our distant past even as it helps us describe and deal with new opportunities, new problems, new events, and new ideas.


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Michael Lydon, who has written about popular music since the 1960s, is the author of Writing and Life, published by University Press of New England. He has also published a dozen other essays on literature through his own Franklin Street Press. Lydon teaches "The Music of Writing" at St. John's University and leads seminars for teenage writers through the Connecticut Young Writers program. Click here to read more articles by Michael Lydon.

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Comments from our users:

Friday July 8th 2011, 12:16 PM
Comment by: Suzanne S. (Calgary Canada)
I am completely smitten with this website. I read it before I read the newspaper in the morning! This word geek thanks you for a fantastic creation.
Friday July 8th 2011, 12:28 PM
Comment by: Graeme Roberts (Pittsford, NY)
Michael Lydon is far better than the cat's pajamas, and even better than the moon in June. Fantastic!
Friday July 8th 2011, 4:39 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Loved it! Call me an almost Word Geek! Little kids seem to be able to create new words so easily. How many variations of 'spaghetti' are there? The one at our house was bisquetti...

There ought to be a place for hanic.
Friday July 8th 2011, 6:47 PM
Comment by: Mary Lee M.
Ah! I remember one of my kids making up a word for something as he was expanding his childhood vocabulary. I explained that there was already another word in place for the thing he was describing, and that was too arbitrary for him. He was just sure he could go out there and explain his word to everyone and they would accept it. Of course, he was only about five.
Saturday July 9th 2011, 12:06 AM
Comment by: Carl S. (Oceanside, CA)
This is a great site, I agree with Suzanne. Words are fun and so is stringing them together. Sometimes I look up a word in the dictionary and it gives a few ~like words and that's all. Guess that's where copious reading of educated writers comes in. )
On my current list: Castles in the air, Death and the Lit chick, Wide Sargasso Sea.
Saturday July 9th 2011, 12:33 AM
Comment by: Carl S. (Oceanside, CA)
Semicolon after site! Sorry.
Saturday July 9th 2011, 5:23 PM
Comment by: mac
new words, completely w/o relevance to the old might be helpful.
in a world of stale thoughts and cliches, perhaps these new words will force bloggers, wannabe reporters and yes, editors to pay attention to what they are typing. at the very least we would be asking so many of those aforementioned, "do you hear what you are saying?"
suppose there was an individual empowered to issue edicts. as example? "tomorrow at 0930 blog will be supplanted by a new word frigenego."
what then of those swimming in the sea of confusion? will the manufacture (invention?) of new words throw them a life preserver or an anchor. will the world of letters be salvaged or further savaged.
Sunday July 10th 2011, 2:05 AM
Comment by: John S.
I have always been fascinated by words and meanings, but seldom have time to think about them. Thanks for making us take pause. In particular, I think it is cool the way we adopt words from other cultures to fill in conceptual gaps like tsunami for instance. As the world grows smaller and our emotional and social spectrums gain resolution we will probably pick up more words like tsunami to fit the new lessons we learn--and the concepts to go with them.
Sunday July 10th 2011, 4:16 AM
Comment by: Ryota Ito (Los Angeles, CA)
I am Japanese. Our new words are from old words, too. Since we have three alphabets(hiragana, katakana, and chinese character), the situation may be more complex! Although I am 23-years old, I can not keep up with the new words!!lol
Sunday July 10th 2011, 8:01 PM
Comment by: Christina G.
This article was a nice reminder on how words are also symbols which invoke meaning and emotional response(s), and can differ from person to person.
Thursday July 14th 2011, 9:07 PM
Comment by: Dwight W. (Abilene, TX)
I used to think I was being so clever when I responded to "How are you doing?" with what I thought was a meaningless word, "cogitatious." You can imagine how disappointed I was to learn that other people -- some of them famous -- had already used the similar word, "cogitations." So, now I have replaced it with "runcible," a made-up word by Edward Lear. Not original but I hope to come up with something clever very metapulously.
Tuesday August 2nd 2011, 11:35 AM
Comment by: Christopher L. (Hudson, NC)
Steve Martin had a hilarious bit he did back in the 1970s involving having a lark with your kids...by talking wrong, applying wrong meanings to words or making up words, waiting patiently for years until they go out into the world and look foolish trying to communicate.

Sick but funny! I had forgotten that until I read this article!
Saturday August 6th 2011, 9:07 PM
Comment by: mac
"the reason why i . . ." am i the only person finds this unnecessary and most annoying?
Wednesday September 14th 2011, 5:11 PM
Comment by: Sandra C. (Atlanta, GA)
Panic was a 'telephone' when it was created, building on association with the fluted one, Pan.

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