What do I mean if I say octopus? The referent is fairly clear—a slimy sinuous thing rumored to be intelligent, and you might just ask, “So what about it?” But if I say love, that’s not so simple. You have to sort through a plethora of relationships you’ve had, movies you’ve seen, quotes from the Bible or self-help books—as many associations and implications as there are bacteria on your tongue or the tongue of your beloved.
It’d be convenient if the dictionary held all the meanings of words. But if you utter the words “Pork roast” at our table, you’ll get a laugh and you won’t know why. You’ll never find it in the dictionary. Language is an implicit agreement between us, but it takes long, long acquaintance to know when we speak the same language.
What, for example, does freedom mean? We fight, kill and die for it, but what does it mean? America, God, equality… Theoretically, we could put our hands on that octopus, but no way these abstractions. Yet these are what we fight for most vehemently.
In high school, I had a spate of reading about semantics, the meaning of meaning, and I made myself fairly obnoxious in class by asking, at one point, what was concretely meant in an inspirational assembly, and in another what a poet meant by “white peace.”
Recently, I’ve come back to those questions as I read FB hassles involving cultural appropriation, white supremacy, defunding police, nihilism, First Amendment, mansplaining, transgender, capitalism, patriarchy, etc. The folks who have something to say on those issues know what they mean, whichever side they’re on. What they don’t seem to know or care, with rare exceptions, are what those terms may mean to anyone else.
In part, that’s tribal. If you pronounce shibboleth the right way you’re fine; if not, we kill you. Now we have laws that get in the way, but we still have the tribal instinct.
So I feel we spend enormous effort in arguing over semantics. “What do you mean by that?” should be the most frequent question, but it’s rarely asked. Are we really talking about the same thing? Do we really care what’s in this other person’s head? Is it easier to inveigh against something that’s not meant than to confront what is?
I’m not suggesting that an agreement on definitions is the ultimate answer to the desire to kill. But I am suggesting that we’d save many electrons—and perhaps lower our blood pressure a few points—by an occasional questioning what’s meant by whatever terms we’re debating. And an understanding that each person’s life gives meaning to the words in the head.