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:
— 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:
— 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.