The relationship between words and things

K.K. Luke

Jan 17, 2018 | Articles

That words come with meaning (‘have’ meaning) and stand for or correspond to ‘things’ is an age-old belief. We may even say that it is ‘common sense’. However, this “habitual attitude towards words”, as C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards call it in their book The Meaning of Meaning, published almost a century ago in 1923, turns out to be a deep fallacy. In fact, Ogden and Richards went so far as to say that such beliefs are a form of “superstition” and should be given up as quickly as possible by any right-thinking person. The reason why Ogden and Richards think that this is superstition is that they realised that words don’t stand for things directly but serve to initiate ‘mental processes’ which then result in references to ‘things’ (i.e., ‘meanings’).

What’s more, it’s common belief to think that most words have a definite meaning. There are the odd cases of homophony (sun, son) or polysemy (bank – money bank vs. river bank) of course, but by and large, one word one meaning. The truth is, when we consider words a little more closely, it turns out that most of them are polysemous. Thus, ‘rock’ can be used to refer to ‘stone’ but it is also used quite commonly in the sense of ‘rock-and-roll’, as in ‘rock star’ or ‘rock concert’. Indeed it can also go with several other words such as ‘rock sugar’, ‘rock candy’, ‘rocking cradle’ and ‘rocking chair’.

It is said that the 500 most commonly used words in the language has 14,000 definitions in the OED – on average 28 senses for each word!

And with words like ‘truth’, ‘democracy’ and ‘beauty’, you can imagine how complicated things can get once we drill down into these things.

Incidentally, even very small words, like prepositions and particles, turn out to have multiple senses. For example, the preposition ‘of’ (or –‘s) can ‘mean’ rather different things in different combinations. Thus, ‘of’ as in ‘the King of France’ is very different from ‘of’ as in ‘the city of New York’, ‘a work of art’, or ‘tug-of-war’.

There can be no better way of illustrating this point than to cite a fun poem written by William Cole called ‘foolish questions’:

Foolish Questions (William Cole)

Where can a man buy a cap for his knee?

Or a key for a lock of his hair?

Can your eyes be called an academy

Because there are pupils there?

In the crown of your head, what jewels are found?

Who travels the bridge of your nose?

Could you use in shingling the roof of your mouth

The nails on the end of your toes?

Could the crook in your elbow be sent to jail?

If so, what did he do?

How can you sharpen your shoulder blades?

I’ll be darned if I know, do you?

Can you sit in the shade of the palm of your hand

And play on the drum of your ear?

Do the calves of our legs eat the corn on our toes?

Then why does it grow on the ear?

Can the calf of his leg eat the corn on his toe?—

There’s somethin’ pretty strange around here.

If words can be used to mean so many things, then how could we ever know which is the right meaning of a word on any given occasion of its use? A simple (or simple-minded?) answer to this question is: It all depends on the context. This is of course entirely true, but then we would just be shifting the problem from ‘word’ and ‘meaning’ to ‘context’, so that the question now becomes: What is context, and how do we know on any given occasion what the context is?

This is hardly the occasion to tackle such vexing questions, but I would like to quickly outline, in a sketchy fashion, the shape of an answer to this question.

We need first to abandon (as Ogden and Richards rightly recommended) the idea that words are symbols which ‘stand for things’. Rather, we should start thinking of words, as recommended by Wittgenstein, as tools or instruments that are used to do things (social actions), and as, following Alfred Schutz and Harold Garfinkel, as indices that don’t so much ‘stand for’ things as suggest directions and locations that the hearer or interpreter should look in her mind (within the body of knowledge that constitutes her past experience) so as to retrieve relevant bits of knowledge to construct a context which will make it possible for her to make sense of what the speaker is trying to do with the words that he is using at this very moment in time. 

It may be best to show how this scenario works with an example. In speaking to a colleague recently, he marvelled at how ‘the same expression’ could mean very different things, sometimes even opposite things, in different situations. One such expression which he cited is ‘Of course!’. Without going into details, we should be able to see how, under different circumstances, and in response to different questions or suggestions, ‘of course’ could be taken to mean very different things. Thus, in response to someone asking ‘Can I take this chair?’ in the canteen, it could mean ‘by all means, go ahead’, but in response to a student’s ‘Is this assignment to be submitted before Friday?’, the same utterance (by a teacher) would more likely be taken to mean ‘You ought to know!’.

We should therefore say that, rather than being ‘carriers of meanings’, words serve more like signs or signposts showing hearers possible ways of interpreting and understanding speakers’ intentions (‘what they want to do’). The hearer will then ‘decipher’ and interpret words in such a way as to construct a context and a meaning in her mind at the same time. So, beauty is in the eye of the beholder after all!