multi-meaning

One thing to bear in mind is that "objective sources" for the "real" meaning of a word are abstractions generated by lexicographers in an attempt to describe best how the word WAS used. And, due to the rapidly changing nature of the linguistic symbolic environment, seldom do these "objective" sources attempt to codify the "connotations" that most words have for varying periods of time in varying locations. We ought to say that these "objective sources" are only maps, and historical ones at that, for the "territory", which should be thought of as the "real meanings" of the words - how they are currently being used in the culture, including their current connotations and value associations. In the physical environment, "reality" is that which our descriptions are maps of; in some of the symbolic environments, "real meanings" are that which our "dictionary definitions" are (old historical) limited maps of (only the denotations).

Like it or not, we live in more than just our physical environment. We also exist in multilevel "symbolic environments". Just because we can stand back and say, "the word is not the thing", and "meaning is in people", doesn't mean we can pretend that these symbolic environments can be dismissed. The "WIGO" includes the culture we live in, the many ways people interact with each other, the ways that people use and react to words, and how those uses and reactions change with time and place.

Who are we to say that we know what "really happened"?

To the majority, our parochial view that words can't have any stigma attached to them appears as a "a stunning lack of consciousness" "and really remarkable confusion of" the ways people behave. The idea that meaning really isn't common to words we all use is an "ignorant and confused stand" that exhibits very little grasp of culture, politics, and human relations.

Symbolic environments can be measured with experiments. (For an example see The Multi-Dimensional Structure of Interpersonal Communications.) The results vary with the target audience, which is itself determined by symbolic environment considerations.

General semantics speaks of dictionary definitions, dictionary definitions in a particular context, and dictionary definitions in a particular context as responded to or understood by a particular individual (the classic general semantics divisions of "multi-meaning"). Many general semanticists in my experience seem to have decided that only the later "counts" or is worth taking notice of. These are those that claim that words themselves have no meaning, that meanings are only in people - expressing this by advocating saying not, "What does IT mean?", but, "What do YOU mean?". This inclination among us tends to make us forget that general semantics describes at least two other levels of multi-meaning.

In the absence of compelling evidence to the contrary, it is perfectly reasonable to evaluate a statement as "meaning" just what the dictionary definitions of the words comprise, including their somewhat dynamic connotations and emotional associations that are rarely written in dictionaries but of which we all are aware.  The society cannot function without this assumption. It's only when the assumption is called into question by someone's reacting to say, "That's not what I meant!" or some other evidence that the usage is not in accord with these "dictionary definitions", that more individualized meanings need to examined.

That there is considerable awareness of general semantics second level of multi-meaning - dictionary definitions in specific contexts - can be seen by noting the frequency with which someone says, "That was taken out of context." or "You're taking that completely out of context.".

Like it or not, we live in these symbolic environments. Included in these environments is the practical idea that very seldom can multi-meaning level 3 - dictionary definitions in a given context as understood by a particular individual - be queried. One to many communications depend upon the dictionary definitions being largely understood and the "expertise" of individuals and groups with the current connotations. Many people make a living demonstrating how good they are at understanding these meanings. Advertisers, politicians, etc.

Our symbolic environments also include many varied value systems held by many individuals, value systems against which the reasonably understood dictionary definitions and connotations are judged.

Who are we to tread on and dismiss someone else's value system - especially when they differ from ours?

The symbolic environments also include the behavior patterns of people as they respond to each other in the contexts of their values, including such things as described by words 'competition', 'pride', 'arrogance', 'stubbornness', 'kindness', etc.. Diplomats, mediators, etc., make a living understanding these symbolic environments and how to use words to effect the actions of respondents. "Dictionary definitions" rarely take precedence over these behavior patterns.

To summarize.


Annotated bibliography of general semantics papers
General Semantics and Related Topics

This page was updated by Ralph Kenyon on 2009/11/16 at 00:26 and has been accessed 20893 times at 85 hits per month.