The heart of the meaning

A few days ago I came across a very interesting discussion on Facebook (who would have thought?) that started with someone complimenting the original poster (OP) for being creative and having “invented” something. The OP then answers that he didn’t actually invent it, since people had been doing similar things for ages and that “the words ‘invention’ and ‘creation’ don’t belong here“. Another commenter chimed in and stated that too often words like “master” and “genius” are used out of context and that supporters/fans/followers/students often use words which are too big and exaggerated, showing both respect, and ignorance. 

This prompted a recurring question in my mind: what does a word mean? I’ve had this discussion with multiple people and it seems to me that a consensus is hard to reach. The purist (and in my opinion, narrow-minded) linguist will stand firmly by the “definition”: a word has a defined meaning, which must be preserved and rules are to be followed at all times. The practical linguist will argue that language is adaptable and that a word means whatever people want it to mean, that language changes over time and dialect. It should be obvious from my remarks which group I identify with.

However, stances are hard to take for me. I often like to dig deeper into such matters. I ask not what is the meaning of a word, but what is the meaning of meaning itself? What does it mean to “mean”? Is meaning something that is inherent to the word and cannot be separated from it? Is meaning something that exists by itself and we attribute a word to it? We can easily dismiss the first definition simply by pointing out the existence of synonyms and homonyms. The latter definition, though, is tricky. Is the meaning equivalent to the object? Philosophy and psychology will tell us that no, they are separate, but that the meaning references the object and cannot exist without it. If you think about a meaning, then that meaning means something (it references an object, even the meaning itself can be an object), therefore that object does exist, even if only in your mind at that point in time. Therefore we could say that all meanings have an object, even if in a restricted scope of existence.

This brings us back to the meaning of meaning. Does the meaning in your head in that specific moment truly matter? It exists for you, but not for anyone else, which makes it useless in communication (but not entirely useless). Now, being useless in communication is somewhat of a problematic situation for a meaning to find itself in. How else are you going to communicate that meaning to someone else? We go back to language. Language is an attempt at communicating meaning. It is a translation that in the best of scenarios will be re-translated by the listener’s brain upon hearing it, and then re-translated into the meaning that exists in that person’s mind. That’s three translations, you might notice. So, you have a meaning, your listener has another meaning, and at best you hope that they are similar enough and that they reference the same object. You both heard the exact same word, but translated it to slightly different (or sometimes very different) meanings that reference slightly different objects (or, again, very different objects).

Now back to the initial question: what is the meaning of meaning? I do not presume to have the answer, but:

  • A meaning must reference an object. As soon as a meaning is created, it creates an object in one’s mind. The object might be the meaning itself (circular reference).
  • An object must be referenced by a meaning. As soon as you perceive an object, you create meaning.
  • A meaning does not depend on a word.
  • A word must have a meaning and can have more than one meaning at a time.

Is meaning then important? Yes, absolutely. Is the meaning of meaning important? Yes, as long as you want to have clear communication and understanding. Many-a fight could have been avoided had the people agreed on a common frame of reference for the meaning of meaning itself.

Words and language are tools created and shaped constantly by humans. They are an attempt at conveying meaning from one’s mind into someone else’s mind, and therefore understanding that the meaning in one’s mind is not necessarily the same as the meaning in someone else’s mind is crucial to communicate efficiently.


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