Do Words Have Inherent Meaning?

Article excerpt

IN AUGUST 2007, PARTICIPANTS on the Institute of General Semantics Forum discussed the frequently quoted statement "words don't mean, people mean," and the question of whether or not words have inherent meaning in a thread that shares its title with this article. (1)

Before proceeding, I feel that it is necessary to lay out my understanding of the subject by giving definitions of the major words in the title.

word

a single unit of language that has meaning and can be spoken or written The word "environment" means different things to different people. She spoke so fast 1 couldn 't understand a word (= anything she said).

meaning

what something represents or expresses Do you know the meaning of this word? The word has several meanings.

inherent

exisiting as a natural or permanent quality of something or someone The drug has certain inherent side effects. (Cambridge Dictionary of American English)

These definitions represent the collective senses by which these terms are understood by a majority of American English speakers as corroborated in standard dictionaries. (2)

In addition to these dictionary definitions, Korzybski in Science & Sanity (hereinafter S&S), provided us with his 'definition' of 'meaning' for 'words': "... words represent abstractions of different order ..." (p.21).

Combining all of these definitions, I can provide an overall definition of the word 'word' which matches my understanding:

word: a single unit of language that represents abstractions of different order and can be spoken or written.

I will discuss the usage of 'inherent' added to this definition later.

In this paper, I am restricting the use of meaning of a word to one specific level of abstraction, namely, that which is made by a reader/hearer upon encountering that word each time as part of a message of larger, more specific context. (3)

My immediate response to the question asked as the subject of the discussion was a definite 'no'.

This passage by Milton Dawes in Time-Bindings expresses well part of my views on the subject.

1. Words, by themselves, do not have meanings. (The 'meanings' of words we read in a dictionary were assigned by lexicographers. And lexicographers depend on the meanings given to these words by other humans.)

2. If I accepted that words by themselves had meanings, I would be acting elementalistically; I would be identifying; and I would be evaluating 'allistically'.

'Meaning' involves speakers/writers, their intentions; words they use to represent their intentions; my interpretation of those words; and my responses (conscious and non-conscious, verbal and non-verbal) based on my interpretation.

Words do not mean ... Humans give meanings. We are usually unaware that we do--but if we are very attentive, we can catch ourselves in the process. (p.6)

This summarized some of my thoughts about the subject, but didn't cover all of them, and so, I decided to try to lay out completely the foundations of why I. believed as I do.

During the course of the discussion, people did appear to acknowledge that, as happens in so many of our disagreements, the individual, personal, different and multi-level evaluations of several of the significant terms, especially including 'inherent' itself, formed the root of the problem. Becoming consciously aware that this was occurring emphasizes the raison d' etre of general semantics. (4)

As one example, I evaluated that some of the participants in the Forum discussion seemed to hold that meanings, once they had been formulated and placed in a dictionary, exist independently of both the formulator and any possible reader and that this constituted the inherent meaning of the words. I have seen this same attitude among many people, sometimes expressed as; "That is the meaning of the word because that is what is written in the dictionary. …