It is only by ignorance that we advance meaning in language
In the words of poet, musician and hedonist extraordinaire, Jim Morrison, “Words be nimble. Words be quick. Words resemble walking sticks.” Words are amazing things. All it takes is a few letters strung together in the correct order, and you have a concept or a label that tells so much about you.
Yet words have a way of standing on their heads. Consider for instance the salutation at the end of an ordinary business letter, ‘Your humble servant’. In fact they usually mean that the person appending his or her signature actually has no intent of serving, but that by virtue of his or her high position, you may actually end up in his or her service. Be doubly cautious of those who identify themselves as ‘humble and obedient’.
While we are on the topic of ending letters, what meaning can we attach to the words, ‘Kind regards’? Is it an act of kindness, on the part of the person signing, to give his or her regards? Is it that the person has not yet achieved enough status to be a ‘humble and / or obedient servant’? Or is it merely that the writer is not able to attach any real emotional intent of the letter?
I much preferred the older form which gave us clarity on how we were supposed to read the intent of the letter. The content might not entirely have been written ‘sincerely’ or ‘faithfully’ or may even have been as false as a three dollar coin, but at least we knew what the writer wanted us to believe.
One of my favourite acrobatic words is ‘sophistication’. Think about what it means. In most uses, the word is associated with a compliment. People who are ‘sophisticated’ are generally seen, at least in the mind’s eye, to be intelligent, well-dressed, wealthy and aware of what is good and what is not.
On the other hand, the root of the word ‘sophistication’ is ‘sophistry’. Sophistry was invented by, you guessed it, the Sophists. The Sophists were a school of Greek philosophers who used unsound arguments to prove points. The Sophists specialized in stock arguments which they stated could prove that something worse is better and that black is white!
The other sense of the word ‘sophisticated’ is ‘pretentious’, ‘unduly refined’ or ‘superficially wise’. Which meaning is more true?
Maybe the answer lies between the two. Perhaps the person who aims to be ‘sophisticated’ is ‘pretentious’, ‘unduly refined’ or ‘superficially wise’. It is an interesting idea, brain candy for idle moments, but not one that I am going to pursue here.
So if words do handstands and contort themselves to fit the meaning of the moment, how much can we trust them?. It is not easy to lug a dictionary around, it will earn you curious stares and that sort of lexicographical questioning does not get you invited back to business meetings, dates or dinners. Nor is the cold, hard light of a verbal truth always appreciated.
One interpretation of meaning in words is that there are three meanings in any word. There is the meaning assigned by the definition of the word, the meaning intended by the author and the interpretation of the reader. It is a very handy idea, but doesn’t satisfy when a politely honed insult is read as flattery by the recipient. Of course it does leave you room to gleefully question the comprehension and intelligence of whomever you are insulting.
But the beauty of words also lies in their twisting meanings. There would not be much joy in imagination if words could not be made to fit the meaning of a certain circumstance.
The words that I hate the most are those that are without meaning; the banal platitudes of ‘kind regards’ or ‘I can’t complain’. Without meaning words are as worthless as the promises of an ambitious politician or the commitment of a non-committal diplomat.
Unfortunately words are falling prey to globalisation as well. A hamburger is no longer an interesting German manner of preparing meat; it is something used to pack a roll, with very little variation. And as words fall prey to substitution by emotionally barren catch phrases, so does meaning.