Words and Meanings

While sitting uneasily at the Mad Hatter’s tea-party Alice is engaged in the following exchange with the March Hare and the Hatter:

“. . . why is a raven like a writing desk?”

“I’m glad they’ve begun asking riddles — I believe I can guess that,” she added aloud.

“Do you mean that you can find out the answer to it?” asked the March haste.

“Exactly so,” said Alice.

“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.

“I do,” Alice replied hastily; “at least — at least I mean what I say — that’s the same thing, you know.”

“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “Why you might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see!'”

“”You might just as well say” added the March Hare, “that ‘I like what I get’ is the same thing as ‘I get what I like.'”

And so it goes in Wonderland. Poor Alice!

In our world, where we seldom wonder, we occasionally puzzle over the problem whether the tree falling in the forest with no one around can be said to have made a sound. Or, to quote William James, we ask whether in going around a tree with a squirrel on the other side do we go around the squirrel if he remains always on the other side of the tree?

Well, some of us worry about such things. Mostly stuffy philosophers in their closets. These appear to be real problems when, in fact they are somewhat spurious. They are merely verbal problems and they can be solved by simply stipulating what we mean by “sound,” in the first case, and “around” in the second case. To take the second case, we go around the squirrel if by “around” we mean we circumscribe the squirrel; we do not if we mean by “around” that we see all sides, front, and back of the squirrel. Β In the first case it is clear that depends on what we mean by “sound.”Β It all depends on saying what we mean.

If we mean what we say, on the other hand, then we are probably not modern parents who challenge their kids with threats they seldom or never carry out: “Peter, if you don’t stop hitting your little sister you will be sent to your room!” But, as so often happens, Peter keeps hitting his sister and is never sent to his room. Parents so often don’t mean what they say and the kids grow up not knowing where the line is drawn — if, indeed, there IS any line!

Thus do logical and linguistic puzzles translate into real-life experiences where kids are spoiled and we both eat what we see and see what we eat. Or we seem always to get what we like even if we really don’t want it — and we certainly don’t need it.

But, in the end, as Ludwig Wittgenstein told us long ago, we need to show the fly the way out of the milk bottle: we need to make clear to others what we mean when we use words — words such as “socialism,” “capitalism,” “democracy,” “conservative,” or “liberal.” Otherwise the fly will buzz around in the milk bottle and never get out — and we will debate endlessly about matters that really don’t matter and insist that facts are really fictions and truth is a matter of opinion.

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13 thoughts on “Words and Meanings

  1. Dear Hugh,

    The lines appear to becoming more illusory or lacking in force into today’s world. People can say whatever they want whenever they want. They can repeat whatever it is over and over again until at least some folks are persuaded even if they see something different with their own eyes.

    I am believing that there is a war on truth.

    Hugs, Gronda

  2. Nicely done. As usual Hugh, you brighten my days with something to think about. Thank you and Merry Christmas!

  3. Hey Hugh, First time respond here. Words and their meanings are my passion (though in my later years I am having problems accessing what I know is in my memory) but I have to say I have never seen anyone see all sides of a tree or squirrel by concumvening one ot both beings. In my vocabulary to cumvent or circumvene is to go around something by avoiding it, not by walking around it. You can circumvene an obstacle or circumvent a law, but I highly doubt you can circumvent anything that you can circle without opposition. And while I do believe there is a “circum-” word for what you do mean, the closest I can come without a dictionary handy is to circumscribe a tree IF you are using your body as the instrument of circumscription. No self-respecting squirrel will let you circum-anything it.

      • My pleasure. Not much in this world really aggravates me, but misusing the English language does, unless a writer defines what they mean by the misuse, which I do All The Time because I cannot find the perfect word to express what I want to say. Other things that do aggravate me, closed minds, and, obviously, the person with the most closed mind in this world, Donald Trump.

  4. This was an interesting post. As a practical application concerning the fly, I’ve observed the big flys are smart enough to go out a door or window I’ve opened but a small fly won’t leave a closed window to explore and find the opening. It’s no doubt because the bigger fly has a bigger brain. πŸ˜€ — Suzanne

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