FROM the moment Mr. Smith switches on an early morning news broadcast to the time he falls asleep at night over a novel or a magazine, he is, like all other people living under modern civilized conditions, swimming in words. Newspaper editors, politicians, salesmen, radio comedians, columnists, luncheon club speakers, and clergymen; colleagues at work, friends, relatives, wife and children; market reports, direct mail advertising, books, and billboards—all are assailing him with words all day long. And Mr. Smith himself is constantly contributing to that verbal Niagara every time he puts on an advertising campaign, delivers a speech, writes a letter, or even chats with his friends.

When things go wrong in Mr. Smith’s life—^when he is worried, perplexed, or nervous, when family, business, or national affairs are not going as he thinks they should, when he finds himself making blunder after blunder in personal or financial matters—^he blames a number of things as responsible for his difficulties. Sometimes he blames the weather, sometimes his health or the state of his “nerves,” sometimes his glands, or, if the problem is a larger one, he may blame his environment, the economic system he lives under, a foreign nation, or the cultural


pattern of society. When he is pondering over the diflB-culties of other people, he may attribute their troubles too to causes such as these, and he may add still another, namely, “human nature.” It rarely, if ever, occurs to him to investigate, among other things, the nature and constituents of that daily verbal Niagara as a possible cause of trouble.

Indeed, there are few occasions on which Mr. Smith thinks about words as such. He wonders from time to time about a grammatical point. Sometimes he feels an uneasiness about his own verbal accomplishments, so that he begins to wonder if he shouldn’t take steps to “improve his vocabulary.” Once in a while he is struck by the fact that some people (although he never includes himself among these) “twist the meanings of words,” especially during the course of arguments, so that words are often “very tricky.” Occasionally, too, he notices, usually with irritation, that words sometimes “mean different things to different people.” This condition, he feels, would be cured if people would only consult their dictionaries oftener and learn the “true meanings” of words. He knows, however, that they will not—at least, not any oftener than he does, which is not very often—so that he puts this down as another instance of the weakness of human nature.

This, unfortunately, is about the limit of Mr. Smith’s linguistic speculations. But in this respect Mr. Smith is

representative not only of the general public, but also of many scientific workers, publicists, and writers. Mr. Smith, like most people, takes words as much for granted as the air he breathes, and gives them about as much thought. Mr. Smith’s body automatically adjusts itself, within certain limits, to changes in climate or atmosphere, from cold to warm, from dry to moist, from fresh to foul; no conscious eiiFort on his part is required to make these adjustments. Nevertheless, he is ready to acknowledge the effect that climate and air have upon his physical well being, and he takes measures to protect himself from unhealthy air, either by traveling to get away from it, or by installing air-conditioning systems to purify it. But Mr. Smith, like the rest of us, also adjusts himself automatically to changes in the verbal climate, from one type of discourse to another, from one set of terms to another, without conscious effort. He has yet, however, to acknowledge the effect of his verbal climate upon his mental health and well being.

Nevertheless, in the words he absorbs daily and in the words he uses daily, Mr. Smith is profoundly involved. Words in the newspaper make him pound his fist on the breakfast table. Words his superiors speak to him puff him out with pride, or send him scurrying to work harder. Words about himself, which he has overheard being spoken behind his back, worry him sick. Words which he spoke before a clergyman some years ago have

tied him to one woman for life. Words written down on pieces of paper tie him down on his job, or bring bills in his mail every month, which keep him paying and paying. Words written down by other people, on the other hand, keep them paying him montli after month. With words woven into almost every detail of his life, it seems amazing that Mr. Smith’s thinking on the subject of words should be so limited.

Mr. Smith has also noticed, if he keeps himself informed about the world, that when large masses of people, for example in totalitarian countries, are permitted by their governments to hear and read only carefully selected words, their conduct becomes so strange that he can only regard it as mad. Yet he has observed that some individuals who have the same educational attainments and the same access to varied sources of information that he has, are nevertheless just as mad, and, as the present crisis deepens, getting progressively madder, whether in the direction of escapist fantasy, mouth-foaming hysteria, or catatonic apathy. Does such madness, he asks, illustrate again the “inevitable frailty of human nature”? Mr. Smith, especially if he is an American accustomed to regarding all things as possible, does not like this conclusion, but often he can hardly see how he can escape it.

The reason for this impasse is that Mr. Smith believes, as most people do, that words are not really important;

what is important is the “ideas” they stand for. But what is an “idea” if it is not the verbalization of a cerebral itch ? This, however, is something that has rarely, if ever, occurred to Mr. Smith. The fact that the implications of one set of terms may lead inevitably into blind alleys while the implications of another set of terms may not; the fact that the historical or sentimental associations that some words have make calm discussion impossible so long as those words are employed; the fact that language has a multitude of different kinds of uses, and that great confusion arises from mistaking one kind of use for another; the fact that a person speaking a language of structure entirely different from that of English, such as Japanese, Chinese, or Turkish, does not even think the same thoughts as an English-speaking person—these are unfamiliar notions to Mr. Smith, who has always assumed that the important thing is always to get one’s “ideas” straight first, after which words would automatically take care of themselves.

Whether he realizes it or not, however, Mr. Smith is affected every hour of his life not only by the words he hears and uses, but also by his unconscious assumptions about language. These unconscious assumptions determine the way he takes words—which in turn determines the way he acts, whether wisely or foolishly. Words and the way he takes them determine his beliefs, his prejudices, his ideals, his aspirations—they constitute the moral


and intellectual atmosphere in which he lives, in short, his semantic environment. If he is constantly absorbing false and lying v^^ords, or if his unconscious assumptions about language happen to be, as most of our notions are that have not been exposed to scientific influence, naive, superstitious, or primitive, he may be constantly breathing a poisoned air without knowing it.

What this book hopes to do is to present certain principles of interpretation, or semantic principles, which are intended to act as a kind of intellectual air-purifying and air-conditioning system to prevent the poisons of verbal superstition, primitive linguistic assumptions, and the more pernicious forms of propaganda from entering our systems. These poisons, if unchecked, wastefully consume our energies in the fighting of verbal bogey-men, reduce our intellectual efficiency, and may ultimately destroy our mental health and well being. Nature to some extent provides her own safeguards against these poisons, as she does against germs and dust in the atmosphere; that is, we all intuitively learn, and at least part of the time unconsciously practice, sane semantic principles. But we live in an environment shaped and partially created by hitherto unparalleled semantic influences: commercialized newspapers, commercialized radio programs, “public relation counsels,” and the propaganda technique of nationalistic madmen. Citizens of a modern society need, therefore, more than ordinary “horse sense”; they need to


be scientifically aware of the mechanisms of interpretation if tliey are to guard themselves against being driven mad by the welter of words with which they are now faced.

I should be distressed, however, if my readers found in this book only negative injunctions. If the emphasis seems mainly to be on what not to do, it is only because a book on how to stay healthy cannot as a rule even begin to tell us what to do with our health when we have it. I have tried to indicate neverdieless, even if briefly, some of the positive values, the far-reaching cultural and democratic implications, of semantic health widely established. Semantics is not, as some have accused it of being, a purely destructive discipline, an “anatomy of disbelief.” I hope I have not made it appear in that light.

s. I. H.

lllmois Institute of Technology Chicago •



ONCE upon a time (said the Professor), there were two small communities, spiritually as well as geographically situated at a considerable distance from each other. They had, however, these problems in common: both were hard hit by the depression, so that in each of the towns there were about one hundred heads of families unemployed. There was, to be sure, enough food for them available, enough clothing, enough materials for housing, but these families simply did not have money to procure these necessities.

The city fathers of A-town, the first community, were substantial businessmen, moderately well educated, good to their families, kindhearted, and “sound-thinking.” The unemployed tried hard, as unemployed people usually do, to find jobs; but the situation did not improve. The city fathers, as well as the unemployed themselves, had been brought up to believe that there is always enough work for everyone, if you only look for it hard enough. Comforting themselves with this doctrine, the city fathers could have shrugged their shoulders and turned their backs on the problem, except for the fact that they were genuinely kindhearted men. They could not bear to see the unemployed men and their wives and children starving. In order to prevent starvation, they felt

that they had to provide these people with some means of sustenance. Their principles told them, nevertheless, that if people w^ere “given something for nothing,” it would “demoralize their character.” Naturally, this made the city fathers even more unhappy, because they were faced with the horrible choice of (i) letting the unemployed starve, or (2) destroying their moral character.

The solution they finally hit upon, after much debate and soul-searching, was this. They decided to give the unemployed families “relief” of fifty dollars a month, but to insure against the “pauperization” of the recipients, they decided that this fifty dollars was to be accompanied by a moral lesson, to wit: the obtaining of the assistance would be made so difficult, humiliating, and disagreeable that there would be no temptation for anyone to go through the process unless it was absolutely necessary; the moral disapproval of the community would be turned upon the recipients of the money at all times in such a way that they would try hard to get “off relief” and regain their “self-respect.” Some even proposed that people “on relief” be denied the vote, so that the moral lesson would be more deeply impressed upon them. Others suggested that their names be published at regular intervals in the newspapers, so that there would be a strong incentive to get “off relief.” The city fathers had enough faith in the goodness of human nature to ex-

pect that the recipients would be “grateful,” since they were “getting something for nothing,” something which they “hadn’t worked for.”

When the plan was put into operation, however, the recipients of the “relief” checks proved to be an ungrateful, ugly bunch. They seemed to resent the cross-examinations and inspections at the hands of the “relief investigators,” who, they said, “took advantage of a man’s misery to snoop into every detail of his private life.” In spite of uplifting editorials in A-town Tribune telling them how grateful they ought to be, the recipients of the “relief” stubbornly refused to learn any moral lessons, declaring that they were “just as good as anybody else.” When, for example, they permitted themselves the rare luxury of a movie or an evening of bingo, their neighbors looked at them sourly as if to say, “I work hard and pay my taxes just in order to support bums like you in idleness and pleasure.” This attitude, which was fairly characteristic of those members of the community who still had jobs, further embittered the “relief” recipients, so that they showed even less gratitude as time went on and were constantly on the lookout for insults, real or imaginary, from people who might think that they weren’t “as good as anybody else.” A number of them took to moping all day long, to thinking that their lives had been “failures,” and finally to committing suicide. Others found that it was “hard to look their wives and

kiddies in the face,” because they had “failed to provide.” They all found it difficult to maintain their club and fraternal relationships, since they could not help feeling that their fellow citizens despised them for having “sunk so low.” Their wives, too, were unhappy for the same reasons and gave up their social activities. Children whose parents were “on relief” felt inferior to classmates whose parents were not “public charges.” Some of these children developed inferiority complexes which affected not only their grades at school, but their careers after graduation. A couple of other relief recipients, finally, felt they could stand their “loss of self-respect” no longer and decided, after many efforts to gain honest jobs, to earn money “by their own efforts,” even if they had to go in for robbery. They did so and were caught and sent to the state penitentiary.

The depression, therefore, hit A-town very hard. The relief policy had averted starvation, no doubt, but suicide, personal quarrels, unhappy homes, the weakening of social organizations, the maladjustment of children, and, finally, crime, had resulted during the hard times. The town was divided in two, the “haves” and the “have-nots,” so that there was “class hatred.” People shook their heads sadly and declared that it all went to prove over again what they had known from the beginning, that “giving people something for nothing” inevitably “demoralizes their character.” The citizens of A-town gloomily waited

for “prosperity” to return, with less and less hope as time went on.

The story of the other community, B-ville, was entirely different. B-ville was a relatively isolated town, too far out of the way to be reached by Rotary Club speakers and university extension services. One of the aldermen, however, who was something of an economist, explained to his fellow aldermen that unemployment, like sickness, accident, fire, tornado, or death, hits unexpectedly in modern society, irrespective of the victim’s merits or deserts. He went on to say that B-ville’s homes, parks, streets, industries, and everything else B-ville was proud of had been built in part by the work of these same people who were now unemployed. He then proposed to apply a principle of insurance: that if the work these unemployed people had previously done for the community could be regarded as a form of “premium” paid to the community against a time of misfortune, payments now made to them to prevent their starvation could be regarded as “insurance claims.” He therefore proposed that all men of good repute who had worked in the community in whatever line of useful endeavor, whether as machinists, clerks, or bank managers, be regarded as “citizen policyholders,” having “claims” against the city in the case of unemployment for fifty dollars a month until such time as they might again be employed. Natu-

rally, he had to talk very slowly and patiently, since the idea was entirely new to his fellow aldermen. But he described his plan as a “straight business proposition,” and finally they were persuaded. They worked out the details as to the conditions under which citizens should be regarded as “policyholders” in the city’s “social insurance plan” to everybody’s satisfaction and decided to give checks for fifty dollars a month to the heads of each of B-ville’s indigent families.

B-ville’s “claim adjusters,” whose duty it was to investigate the “claims” of the “citizen policyholders,” had a much better time than A-town’s “relief investigators.” While the latter had been resentfully regarded as “snoopers,” the former, having no moral lesson to teach but simply a business transaction to carry out, treated their “policyholders” with businesslike courtesy and got the same amount of information as the “relief investigators” with considerably less difficulty. There were no hard feelings. It further happened, fortunately, that news of B-ville’s plans reached a liberal newspaper editor in the big city at the other end of the state. This writer described the plan in a leading feature story headed “b-ville LOOKS AHEAD. Great Adventure in Social Pioneering Launched by Upper Valley Community.” As a result of this publicity, inquiries about the plan began to come to the city hall even before the first checks were mailed

out. This led, naturally, to a considerable feeling of pride on the part of the aldermen, who, being “boosters,” felt that this was a wonderful opportunity to “put B-ville on the map.”

Accordingly, the aldermen decided that instead of simply mailing out the checks as they had originally intended, they would publicly present the first checks at a monster civic ceremony. They invited the governor of the state, who was glad to come to bolster his none-too-enthusiastic support in that locality, the president of the state university, the senator from their district, and other functionaries. They decorated the National Guard armory with flags and got out the American Legion Fife and Drum Corps, the Boy Scouts, and other civic organizations. At the big celebration, each family to receive a “social insurance check” was marched up to the platform to receive it, and the governor and the mayor shook hands with each of them as they came trooping up in their best clothes. Fine speeches were made; there was much cheering and shouting; pictures of the event showing the recipients of the checks shaking hands with the mayor, and the governor patting the heads of the children, were published not only in the local papers but also in several metropolitan rotogravure sections.

Every recipient of these “insurance checks” had a feeling, therefore, that he had been personally honored, that


he lived in a “wonderful little town,” and that he could face his unemployment with greater courage and assurance, since his community was “back of him.” The men and women found themselves being kidded in a friendly way by their acquaintances for having been “up there with the big shots,” shaking hands with the governor, etc. The children at school found themselves envied for having had their pictures in the papers. Altogether, B-ville’s unemployed did not commit suicide, were not haunted by a sense of failure, did not turn to crime, did not get personal maladjustments, did not develop “class hatred,” as the result of their fifty dollars a month. . . .

At the conclusion of the Professor’s story, the discussion began:

“That just goes to show,” said the Advertising Man, who was known among his friends as a “realistic” thinker, “what good promotional work can do. B-ville’s city council had real advertising sense, and that civic ceremony was a masterpiece . . . made everyone happy . . . put over the scheme in a big way. Reminds me of the way we do things in our business: as soon as we called horse-mackerel tuna-fish, we developed a big market for it. I suppose if you called relief ‘insurance,’ you could actually get people to like it, couldn’t you?”

“What do you mean, ‘calling’ it insurance.’^” asked the

Social Worker. “B-ville’s scheme wasn’t relief at all. It was insurance. That’s what all such payments should be. What gets me is the stupidity of A-town’s city council and all people like them in not realizing that what they call ‘relief is simply the payment of just claims which those unemployed have on a community.”

“Good grief, man! Do you realize what you’re saying?” cried the Advertising Man in surprise. “Are you implying that those people had any right to that money ? All I said was that it’s a good idea to disguise relief as insurance if it’s going to make people any happier. But it’s still relief, no matter what you call it. It’s all right to kid the public along to reduce discontent, but we don’t need to kid ourselves as well as the public!”

“But they do have a right to that money! They’re not getting something for nothing. It’s insurance. They did something for the community, and that’s their prem—”

“Say, are you crazy.?”

“Who’s crazy.?”

“You’re crazy. Relief is relief, isn’t it } If you’d only call things by their right names . . .”

“But, confound it, insurance is insurance, isn’t it?”

(Since the gentlemen are obviously losing their tempers, it will be best to leave them. The Professor has already sneaked out. When last heard of, not only had the quarrelers stopped speaking to each other, but so had their

wives—and the Advertising Man w^as threatening to disinherit his son if he didn’t break off his engagement with the Social Worker’s daughter.)

This story has been told not to advance arguments in favor of “social insurance” or “relief” or for any other political and economic system, but simply to show^ a fairly characteristic sample of language in action. Do the words we use make as much difference in our lives as the story of A-town and B-ville seems to indicate .f* We often talk about “choosing the right words to express our thoughts,” as if thinking were a process entirely independent of the words we think in. But is thinking such an independent process? Do the words we utter arise as a result of the thoughts we have, or are the thoughts we have determined by the linguistic systems we happen to have been taught ?

The Advertising Man and the Social Worker seem to be agreed that the results of B-ville’s program were good, so that we can assume that their notions of what is socially desirable are similar. Nevertheless, they cannot agree. Is it because of ignorance on the part of one or the other or both that they quarrel ? This cannot be so, because, as the reader may verify for himself by reading controversies in newspapers, magazines, or even learned journals, well educated people are often the cleverest in proving that insurance is really insurance or that relief is really relief.

Quarrels of this kind, therefore, are especially bitter among social philosophers, lawyers, and publicists.

It will be the thesis of this book that disagreements of this kind—fundamental, doctrinal disagreements which seem to admit of no solution—are due not to stupidity or stubbornness, not even to an unscientific attitude towards the problems involved, but to an unscientific attitude towards language itself. In fact, a number of apparently insoluble problems which face us in our personal lives, in our society, and in our politics—and it must be remembered that these problems are formulated in words —may prove to be not insoluble at all when viewed through a clearer knowledge of the workings of language. It will be the purpose of this book, therefore, not only to acquaint the reader with some elementary facts about language such as are revealed by modern linguistics, anthropology, psychology, philosophy, literary criticism, and other branches of learning, but also to change his very attitude towards language.

Such a change of attitude, it is believed, will, first of all, make him a more understanding reader and listener than he was before. Secondly, it should increase the fruitfulness of whatever conversation and discussion he enters into, because, depending on our unconscious attitudes towards the words we hear and utter, we may use them either as weapons with which to start arguments and verbal free-

for-alls or as instruments with which to increase our wisdom, our sense of fellowship with other human beings, and our enjoyment of life.

P.S. Those who have concluded that the point of the story is that the Social Worker and the Advertising Man were “only arguing about different names for the same thing,” are asked to reread the story and explain what they mean by (i) “only,” and (2) “the same thing.”


One cannot but wonder at this constantly recurring phrase “getting something for nothing,” as if it were the peculiar and perverse ambition of disturbers of society. Except for our animal outfit, practically all we have is handed to us gratis. Can the most complacent reactionary flatter himself that he invented the art of writing or the printing press, or discovered his religious, economic, and moral convictions, or any of the devices which supply him with meat and raiment or any of the sotirces of such pleasure as he may derive from literature or the fine arts? In short, civilization is little else than getting something for no jtng. james harvey robinson


WHEN someone shouts at you, “Look out!” and you duck just in time to avoid being hit by a thrown ball, you owe your escape from injury to the fundamental co-operative act by which most of the higher animals survive: namely, communication by means of noises. You did not see the ball coming; nevertheless, someone did see it, and he made certain noises to communicate his alarm to you. In other words, although your nervous system did not record the danger, you were unharmed because an-

Other nervous system did record it. You had, for the time being, the advantage of an extra nervous system in addition to your own.

Indeed, most of the time v^^hen we are Hstening to the noises people make or looking at the black marks on paper that stand for such noises, we are drawing upon the experiences of the nervous systems of others in order to make up what our own nervous systems have missed. Now obviously the more an individual can make use of the nervous systems of others to supplement his own, the easier it is for him to survive. And, of course, the more individuals there are in a group accustomed to co-operating by making helpful noises at each other, the better it is for all—^within the limits, naturally, of the group’s talents for organization. Birds and animals congregate with their own kind and make noises when they find food or become alarmed. In fact, gregariousness as an aid to self-defense and survival is forced upon animals as well as upon men by the necessity of uniting nervous systems even more than by the necessity of uniting physical strength. Societies, both animal and human, might almost be regarded as huge co-operative nervous systems.

While animals use only a few limited cries, however, human beings use extremely complicated systems of sputtering, hissing, gurgling, clucking, and cooing noises called language, with which they express and report what


goes on in their nervous systems. Language is, in addition to being more complicated, immeasurably more flexible than the animal cries from which it was developed—so flexible indeed that it can be used not only to report the tremendous variety of things that go on in the human nervous system, but to report those reports. That is, when an animal yelps, he may cause a second animal to yelp in imitation or in alarm, but the second yelp is not about the first yelp. But when a man says, “I see a river,” a second man can say, “He says he sees a river”—which is a statement about a statement. About this statement-about-a-statement further statements can be made—and about those, still more. Language, in short, can be about language. This is a fundamental way in which human noise-making systems differ from the cries of animals.

The Pooling of Knowledge

In addition to having developed language, man has also developed means of making, on clay tablets, bits of wood or stone, skins of animals, and paper, more or less permanent marks and scratches which stand for language. These marks enable him to communicate with people who are beyond the reach of his voice, both in space and in time. There is a long course of evolution from the marked trees that indicated Indian trails to the metro-

politan daily newspaper, but they have this in common: they pass on what one individual has known to other individuals, for their convenience or, in the broadest sense, instruction. The Indians are dead, but many of their trails are still marked and can be followed to this day. Archimedes is dead, but we still have his reports about what he observed in his experiments in physics. Keats is dead, but he can still tell us how he felt on first reading Chapman’s Homer. From our newspapers we learn with great rapidity, as the result of steamship, railway, telegraph, and radio, facts about the world we live in. From books and magazines we learn how hundreds of people whom we shall never be able to see have felt and thought. All this information is useful to us at one time or another in the solution of our own problems.

A human being, then, is never dependent on his own experience alone for his information. Even in a primitive culture he can make use of the experience of his neighbors, friends, and relatives, which they communicate to him by means of language. Therefore, instead of remaining helpless because of the limitations of his own experience and knowledge, instead of having to rediscover what others have already discovered, instead of exploring the false trails they explored and repeating their errors, he can go on from where they left o§. Language, that is to say, makes progress possible.

Indeed, most of what we call the human characteristics


of our species are expressed and developed through our ability to co-operate by means of our systems of making meaningful noises and meaningful scratches on paper. Even people w^ho belong to bacWard cultures in v^hich writing has not been invented are able to exchange information and to hand down from generation to generation considerable stores of traditional knowledge. There seemsj however, to be a limit both to the trustworthiness and to the amount of knowledge that can be transmitted orally. But when writing is invented, a tremendous step forward is taken. The accuracy of reports can be checked and rechecked by successive generations of observers. The amount of knowledge accumulated ceases to be limited by people’s ability to remember what has been told them. The result is that in any literate culture of a few centuries’ standing, human beings accumulate vast stores of knowledge—far more than any individual in that culture can read in his lifetime, let alone remember. These stores of knowledge, which are being added to constantly, are made widely available to all who want diem through such mechanical processes as printing and through such distributive agencies as the book trade, the newspaper and magazine trade, and library systems. The result is that all of us who can read any of the major European or Asiatic languages are potentially in touch with the intellectual resources of centuries of human endeavor in all parts of the civilized world.


A physician, for example, who does not know how to treat a patient suffering from a rare disease can look up the disease in a medical index, which may send him in turn to medical journals. There he may find records of similar cases as reported and described by a physician in Rotterdam, Holland, in 1873, by another physician in Bangkok, Siam, in 1909, and by still other physicians in Kansas City in 1924. With such records before him, he can better handle his own case. Again, if a person is worried about ethics, he is not dependent merely upon the pastor of the Elm Street Baptist Church, but he may go to Confucius, Aristotle, Jesus, Spinoza, and many others whose reflections on ethical problems are on record. If one is worried about love, he can get advice not only from his mother or best friend, but from Sappho, Ovid, Proper-tius, Shakespeare, Havelock Ellis, or any of a thousand others who knew something about it and wrote down what they knew.

Language, that is to say, is the indispensable mechanism of human life—of life such as ours that is molded, guided, enriched, and made possible by the accumulation of the pasi experience of members of our species. Dogs and cats and chimpanzees do not, so far as we can tell, increase their wisdom, their information, or their control over their environment from one generation to the next. But human beings do. The cultural accomplishments of the ages, the invention of cooking, of weapons, of writing,


of printing, of methods of building, of games and amusements, of means of transportation, and the discoveries of all the arts and sciences come to us as free gifts from the dead. These gifts, which none of us has done anything to earn, offer us not only the opportunity for a richer life than any of our forebears enjoyed, but also the opportunity to add to the sum total of human achievement by our own contributions, however small.

To be able to read and write, therefore, is to learn to profit by and to take part in the greatest of human achievements—that which makes all other human achievements possible—namely, the pooling of our experience in great co-operative stores of knowledge, available (except where special privilege, censorship, or suppression stand in the way) to all. From the warning cry of the savage to the latest scientific monograph or radio news flash, language is social. Cultural and intellectual co-operation is, or should be, the great principle of human life.

The Worlds We Live In: Map and Territory

There is a sense in which we all live in two worlds. First, we live in the world of the happenings about us which we know at first hand. But this is an extremely small world, consisting only of that continuum of the things that we have actually seen, felt, or heard—the flow of events constantly passing before our senses. As far as

this world of personal experience is concerned, Africa, South America, Asia, Washington, New York, or Los Angeles do not exist if we have never been to these places. President Roosevelt is only a name if we have never seen him. When we ask ourselves how much we know at first hand, we discover that we know very little indeed.

Most of our knowledge, acquired from parents, friends, schools, newspapers, books, conversation, speeches, and radio, is received verbally. All of our knowledge of history, for example, comes to us only in words. The only proof we have that the Battle of Waterloo ever took place is that we have had reports to that effect. These reports are not given us by people who saw it happen, but are based on other reports: reports of reports of reports, and so on, that go back ultimately to the first-hand reports given by the people who did see it happening. It is through reports, then, and through reports of reports, that we receive most of our knowledge: about government, about what is happening in China, about what picture is showing at the downtown theater—in fact, about anything which we do not know through direct experience.

Let us call this world that comes to us through words the verbal world, as opposed to the world we know or are capable of knowing through our own experience, which we shall call the extensiond world. The reason for the choice of the word “extensional” will become clear

later. The human being, Hke any other creature, begins to make his acquaintance with the extensional world from infancy. Unlike other creatures, however, he begins to receive, as soon as he can learn to understand, reports, reports of reports, reports of reports of reports, and so on. In addition, he receives inferences made from reports, inferences made from other inferences, and so on. By the time a child is a few years old, has gone to school and to Sunday school, and has made a few friends, he has accumulated a considerable amount of second- and third-hand information about morals, geography, history, nature, people, games—all of which information together constitutes his verbal world.

Now this verbal world ought to stand in relation to the extensional world as a map does to the territory it is supposed to represent. If the child grows to adulthood with a verbal world in his head which corresponds fairly closely to the extensional world that he finds around him in his widening experience, he is in relatively small danger of being shocked or hurt by what he finds, because his verbal world has told him what, more or less, to expect. He is prepared for life. If, however, he grows up with a false map in his head—that is, with a head crammed with false knowledge and superstition—he will constantly be running into trouble, wasting his efforts, and acting like a fool. He will not be adjusted to the world as it is; he

may, if the lack of adjustment is serious, end up in an insane asylum.

Some of the follies we commit because of false maps in our heads are so commonplace that we do not even think of them as remarkable. There are those who protect themselves from accidents by carrying a rabbit’s foot in the pocket. Some refuse to sleep on the thirteenth floor of hotels—this is so common that most big hotels, even in the capitals of our scientific culture, skip “13” in numbering their floors. Some plan their lives on the basis of astrological predictions. Some play fifty-to-one shots on the basis of dream books. Some hope to make their teeth whiter by changing their brand of tooth paste. All such people are living in verbal worlds that bear little, if any, resemblance to the extensional world.

Now, no matter how beautiful a map may be, it is useless to a traveler unless it accurately shows the relationship of places to each other, the structure of the territory. If we draw, for example, a big dent in the outline of a lake for, let us say, artistic reasons, the map is worthless. But if we are just drawing maps for fun without paying any attention to the structure of the region, there is nothing in the world to prevent us from putting in all the extra curlicues and twists we want in the lakes, rivers, and roads. No harm will be done unless someone tries to plan a trip by such a map. Similarly, by means of imaginary or false reports, or by false inferences from

good reports, or by mere rhetorical exercises, we can manufacture at will, with language, “maps” which have no reference to the extensional world. Here again no harm will be done unless someone makes the mistake of regarding such “maps” as representing real “territories.” We all inherit a great deal of useless knowledge, and a great deal of misinformation and error, so that there is always a portion of what we have been told that must be discarded. But the cultural heritage of our civilization that is transmitted to us—our socially pooled knowledge, both scientific and humane—has been valued principally because we have believed that it gives us accurate maps of experience. The analogy of verbal worlds to maps is an important one and will be referred to frequently throughout this book. It should be noticed at this point, however, that there are two ways of getting false maps of the world into our heads: first, by having them given to us; second, by making them up for ourselves by misreading the true maps given to us.


/ fi7id it difficult to believe that -words have no meaning in themselves, hard as I try. Habits of a lifetime are not lightly thrown aside.


Signal and Symbol Reaction

A NiMALS struggle with each other for food or for leader-Jl\ ship, but they do not, like human beings, struggle with each other for things that stafid for food or leadership: such things as our paper symbols of wealth (money, bonds, titles), badges of rank to wear on our clothes, or low-number license-plates, supposed by some people to stand for social precedence. For animals the relationship in which one thing stands for something else does not appear to exist except in very rudimentary form. For example, a chimpanzee can be taught to drive a car, but there is one thing wrong with its driving: its reactions are such that if a red light shows when it is halfway across a street, it will stop in the middle of the crossing, while if a green light shows while another car is stalled in its path, it will go ahead regardless of consequences. In other words, so far as a chimpanzee is concerned, the red light can hardly be said to stand for stop; it is stop.

Let us then introduce two terms to represent this dis-

tinction between the “red light is stop” relationship, which the chimpanzee understands, and the “red light stands for stop” relationship, which the human being understands. To the chimpanzee, the red light is, we shall say, a signal, and we shall term its reaction a signal reaction; that is, a complete and invariable reaction which occurs whether or not the conditions warrant such a reaction. To the human being, on the other hand, the red light is, in our terminology, a symbol, and we shall term his reaction a symbol reaction; that is, a delayed reaction, conditional upon the circumstances. In other words, the nervous system capable only of signal reactions identifies the signal with the thing for which the signal stands; the human nervous system, however, working under normal conditions, understands no necessary connection between the symbol and the thing for which the symbol stands. Human beings do not automatically jump up in the expectation of being fed whenever they hear an icebox door slam.

The Symbolic Process

Human beings, because they can understand certain things to stajid for other things, have been able to develop what we shall term the symbolic process. Whenever two or more human beings can communicate with each

Other, they can, by agreement, make anything stand for anything. Feathers worn on the head can be made to stand for tribal chieftainship; cowrie shells or rings of brass or pieces of paper can stand for wealth; crossed sticks can stand for a set of religious beliefs; buttons, elks’ teeth, ribbons, special styles of ornamental haircut-ting or tattooing, can stand for social afl&liations. The symbolic process permeates human life at the most savage as well as at the most civilized levels. Warriors, medicine men, policemen, doormen, telegraph boys, cardinals, and kings wear costumes that symbolize their occupations. Savages collect scalps, college students collect dance programs and membership keys in honorary societies, to symbolize victories in their respective fields. There are very few things that men do or want to do, possess or want to possess, that have not, in addition to their mechanical or biological value, a symbolic value.

All fashionable clothes, as Thorstein Veblen has pointed out in his Theory of the Leisure Class, are highly symbolic: materials, cut, and ornament are dictated only to a slight degree by considerations of warmth, comfort, or practicability. The more we dress up in fine clothes, the more do we restrict our freedom of action. But by means of delicate embroideries, easily soiled fabrics, starched shirts, high heels, long and pointed fingernails, and other such sacrifices of comfort, the wealthy classes manage to symbolize the fact that they don’t have to work for a

living. The not so wealthy, on the other hand, by imitating these symbols of wealth, symbolize their conviction that, even if they do work for a living, they are just as good as anybody else. Again, we select our furniture to serve as visible symbols of our taste, wealth, and social position; we trade in perfectly good cars for later models, not always to get better transportation, but to give evidence to the community that we can afford such luxuries; we often choose our residential localities on the basis of a feeling that it “looks well” to have a “good address”; we like to put expensive food on our tables, not always because it tastes better than cheap food, but because it tells our guests that we like them, or, just as often, because it tells them that we are well fixed financially.

Such complicated and apparently unnecessary behavior leads philosophers, both amateur and professional, to ask over and over again, “Why can’t human beings live simply and naturally?” Perhaps, unconsciously, they would like to escape the complexity of human life for the relative simplicity of such lives as dogs and cats lead. But the symbolic process, which makes possible the absurdities of human conduct, also makes possible language and therefore all the human achievements dependent upon language. The fact that more things can go wrong with motorcars than with wheelbarrows is no reason for going back to wheelbarrows. Similarly, the fact that the sym-

bolic process makes complicated follies possible is no reason for wanting to return to a cat-and-dog existence.

Langtiage as Symbolism

Of all forms of symbolism, language is the most highly developed, most subtle, and most complicated. It has been pointed out that human beings, by agreement, can make anything stand for anything. Now, human beings have agreed, in the course of centuries of mutual dependency, to let the various noises that they can produce with their lungs, throats, tongues, teeth, and lips systematically stand for specified happenings in their nervous systems. We call that system of agreements language. For example, we who speak English have been so trained that when our nervous systems register the presence of a certain kind of animal, we may make the following noise: “There’s a cat.” Anyone hearing us would expect to find that by looking in the same direction, he would experience a similar event in his nervous system—one that would have led him to make an almost identical noise. Again, we have been so trained that when we are conscious of wanting food, we make the noise, “I’m hungry.”

There is, as has been said, no necessary co7inection between the symbol and that which is symbolized. Just as men can wear yachting costumes without ever having been near a yacht, so they can make the noise, “I’m

hungry,” without being hungry. Furthermore, just as social rank can be symbolized by feathers in the hair, by tattooing on the breast, by gold ornaments on the watch chain, by a thousand different devices according to the culture we live in, so the fact of being hungry can be symbolized by a thousand different noises according to the culture we live in: “J’ai faim,” or “Es hungert mich,” or “Ho appetito,” or “Hara ga hetta,” and so on.

Linguistic Naivete

However obvious these facts may appear at first glance, they are actually not so obvious as they seem except when we take special pains to think about the subject. Symbols and things symbolized are independent of each other; nevertheless, all of us have a way of feeling as if, and sometimes acting as if, there were necessary connections. For example, there is the vague sense that we all have that foreign languages are inherently absurd. Foreigners have “funny names” for things: why can’t they call things by their “right names” .’^ This feeling exhibits itself most strongly in those American and English tourists who seem to believe that they can make the natives of any country understand English if they shout it at them loud enough. They feel, diat is, that the symbol must necessarily call to mind the thing symbolized.

Anthropologists report similar attitudes among primi-

tive peoples. In talking with natives, they frequently come across unfamiliar words in the native language. When they interrupt the conversation to ask, “Guglu? What is a guglu?” the natives laugh, as if to say, “Imagine not knowing what a guglu is! What amazingly silly people!” When an answer is insisted upon, they explain, when they can get over laughing, “Why, a guglu is a GUGLU, of course!” Very small children think in this respect the way primitive people do; often when policemen say to a whimpering lost child, “All right, little girl, we’ll find your mother for you. Who is your mother ? What’s your mother’s name?” the child can only bawl, “My muvver is mummy. I want mummy!” This leaves the police, as they say in murder mysteries, baflfled. Again, there is the little boy who is reported to have said, “Pigs are called pigs because they are such dirty animals.”

Similar naivete regarding the symbolic process is illustrated by an incident in the adventures of a theatrical troupe playing melodramas to audiences in the western ranching country. One night, at a particularly tense moment in the play, when the villain seemed to have the hero and the heroine in his power, an overexcited cow-puncher in the audience suddenly rose from his seat and shot the villain. The cowpuncher of this story, however, is no more ridiculous than those thousands of people today, many of them adults, who write fan letters to a ventriloquist’s dummy, or those goodhearted but impres-

sionable people who send presents to the broadcasting station when two characters in a radio serial get married, or those astonishing patriots who rushed to recruiting offices to help defend the nation when the United States was “invaded” by an “army from Mars.”

These, however, are only the more striking examples of primitive and infantile attitudes towards symbols. There would be little point in mentioning them if we were uniformly and permanently aware of the independence of symbols from things symbolized. But we are not. Most of us retain many habits of evaluation (“thinking habits”) more appropriate to life in the jungle than to life in modern civilization. Moreover, all of us are capable of reverting to them, especially when we are overexcited or when subjects about which we have special prejudices are mentioned. Worst of all, various people who have easy access to such instruments of public communication as the press, the radio, the lecture platform, and the pulpit actively encourage primitive and infantile attitudes towards symbols. Political and journalistic charlatans, advertisers of worthless or overpriced goods, and promoters of religious bigotry stand to profit either in terms of money or power or both, if the majority of people can be kept thinking like savages or children.

The Word-Deluge We Live In

The interpretation of words is a never-ending task for any citizen in modern society. We now have, as the result of modern means of communication, hundreds of thousands of words flung at us daily. We are constantly being talked at, by teachers, preachers, salesmen, public oflEcials, and moving-picture sound tracks. The cries of the hawkers of soft drinks, soap chips, and laxatives pursue us into our very homes, thanks to the radio—and in some houses the radio is never turned off from morning to night. Daily the newsboy brings us, in large cities, from thirty to fifty enormous pages of print, and almost three times that amount on Sundays. The mailman brings magazines and direct-mail advertising. We go out and get more words at bookstores and libraries. Billboards confront us on the highways, and we even take portable radios with us to the seashore. Words fill our lives.

This word-deluge in which we live is by no means entirely to be regretted. It is to be expected that we should become more dependent on mutual intercommunications as civilization advances. But, with words being flung about as heedlessly of social consequences as they now are, it is obvious that if we approach them with primitive habits of evaluation, or even with a tendency to revert occasionally to primitive habits of evaluation, we cannot do otherwise than run into error, confusion, and tragedy.

Why Is the World a lAess} One Theory

But, the reader may say, surely educated people don’t think like savages! Unfortunately they do—some about one subject, some about another. The educated are frequently quite as naive about language as the uneducated, although the ways in v^^hich they exhibit their naivete may be less easily discernible. Indeed, many are worse off than the uneducated, because while the uneducated often realize their own limitations, the educated are in a position to refuse to admit their ignorance and conceal their limitations from themselves by their skill at word-juggling. After all, education as it is still understood in many circles is principally a matter of learning facility in the manipulation of words.

Such training in word-manipulation cannot but lead to an unconscious assumption that if any statement sounds true, it must be true—or, if not true, at least passable. This assumption (always unconscious) leads even learned men to make beautiful “maps” of “territories” that do not exist—without ever suspecting their nonexistence. Indeed, it can safely be said that whenever people are more attached to their verbal “maps” than to the factual “territories” (that is, whenever they are so attached to pet theories that they cannot give them up in the face of facts to the contrary), they are exhibiting serious linguistic naivete. Some educated and extremely intelligent people

are so attached to the verbal “maps” they have created that, when they can find no territories in the known world to correspond to them, they create “supersensory” realms of “transcendental reality,” so that they will not have to admit the uselessness of their maps/ Such people are often in a position to impose their notions on others, in beautifully written books and in eloquent lectures, and they thus spread the results of linguistic naivete wherever their influence can reach.

As this is being written, the world is becoming daily a worse madhouse of murder, hatred, and destruction. It would seem that the almost miraculous efficiency achieved by modern instruments of communication should enable nations to understand each other better and co-operate more fully. But, as we know too well, the opposite has been the case; the better the communications, the bloodier the quarrels.

Linguistic naivete—our tendency to think like savages about practically all subjects other than the purely technological—is not a factor to be ignored in trying to account for the mess civilization is in. By using the radio and the newspaper as instruments for the promotion of political, commercial, and sectarian balderdash, rather than as instruments of public enlightenment, we seem to have increased the infectiousness of savagery of

^ See Eric Temple Bell, The Search for Truth; also Thurman W. Arnold, The Folklore of Capitalism.

thought. Men react to meaningless noises, maps of nonexistent territories, as if they stood for actualities, and never suspect that there is anything wrong with the process. Political leaders hypnotize themselves with the babble of their own voices and use words in a way that shows not the slightest concern with the fact that if language, the basic instrument of man’s humanity, finally becomes as meaningless as they would make it, co-operation will not be able to continue, and society itself will fall apart.

But to the extent that we too think like savages and babble like idiots, we all share the guilt for the mess in which human society finds itself. To cure these evils, we must first go to work on ourselves. An important beginning step is to understand how language works, what we are doing when we open these irresponsible mouths of ours, and what it is that happens, or should happen, when we listen or read.


The following hobby is suggested for those who wish to follow the argument of this book. In a scrapbook or, perhaps better, on 5 x 7 filing cards, start a collection of quotations, newspaper clippings, editorials, anecdotes, bits of overheard conversation, advertising slogans, etc., that illustrate in one way or another linguistic naivete. The

ensuing chapters of this book will suggest many different kinds of linguistic naivete and confusion to look for, and the methods for classifying the examples found will also be suggested. The simplest way to start will be to look for those instances in which people seem to think that there are necessary connections between symbols and things symbolized—between words and what words stand for. Innumerable examples can be found in books on cultural anthropology, especially in those sections dealing with word-magic. After a few such examples are chosen and studied, the reader will be able to recognize readily similar patterns of thought in his contemporaries and friends. Here are a few items with which such a collection might be begun:

1. “The Malagasy soldier must eschew kidneys, because in the Malagasy language the word for kidney is the same as that for ‘shot’; so shot he would certainly be if he ate a kidney.”— J. G. FRAZER, The Golden Bough (one-volume abridged edition), p. 22.

2. [A child is being questioned.] “Could the sun have been called ‘moon’ and the moon ‘sun’?— No. —Why not?— Because the sun shines brighter than the moon. . . . But if everyone had called the sun ‘moon,’ and the moon ‘sun,’ would we have known it was wrong?— Yes, because the sun is always bigger, it always stays li\e it is and so does the moon. —Yes, but the sun isn’t changed, only its name. Could it have been called . . . etc.?— No. . . . Because the moon rises in the evening, and the sun in the day.” — piaget. The Child’s Conception of the World, pp. 81-82.

3. The City Council of Cambridge, Massachusetts, unani-

mously passed a resolution (December, 1939) making it illegal “to possess, harbor, sequester, introduce or transport, within the city limits, any book, map, magazine, newspaper, pamphlet, handbill or circular containing the words Lenin or Leningrad.”

4. The gates of the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition at Chicago were opened, through the use of the photoelectric cell, by the light of the star Arcturus. It is reported that a woman, on being told of this, remarked, “Isn’t it wonderful how those scientists J^now the names of all those stars!”

5. “State Senator John McNaboe of New York bitterly opposed a bill for the control of syphilis in May, 1937, because ‘the innocence of children might be corrupted by a widespread use of the term. . . . This particular word creates a shudder in every decent woman and decent man.'”— stuart chase, The Tyranny of Words, p. 63.

6. A picture in the magazine Life (October 28, 1940) shows the backs of a sailor’s hands, with the letters “h-o-l-d f-a-s-t” tattooed on the fingers. The caption explains, “This tattoo was supposed to keep sailors from falling off yardarm.”


Vagjce and insignificant forms of speech, and abuse of language, have so long passed for mysteries of science; and hard or misapplied words with little or no meaning have, by prescription, such a right to be mistaken for deep learning and height of speculation, that it will not be easy to persuade either those who speak or those who hear them, that they are but the covers of ignorance and hindrance of true knowledge.


FOR THE purposes of the interchange of information, the basic symbolic act is the report of what we have seen, heard, or felt: “There is a ditch on each side of the road.” “You can get those at Smith’s hardware store for $2.75.” “There aren’t any fish on that side of the lake, but there are on this side.” Then there are reports of reports: “The longest waterfall in the world is Victoria Falls in Rhodesia.” “The Battle of Hastings took place in 1066.” “The papers say that there was a big smash-up on Highway 41 near Evansville.” Reports adhere to the following rules: first, they are capable of verification; secondly, they exclude, so far as possible, judgments, inferences, and the use of “loaded” words.



Reports are verifiable. We may not always be able to verify them ourselves, since we cannot track down the evidence for every piece of history we know, nor can we all go to Evansville to see the remains of the smash-up before they are cleared away. But if we are roughly agreed on the names of things, on what constitutes a “foot,” “yard,” “bushel,” and so on, and on how to measure time, there is relatively little danger of our misunderstanding each other. Even in a world such as we have today, in which everybody seems to be fighting everybody else, ife still to a surprising degree trust each other s reports. We ask directions of total strangers when we are traveling. We follow directions on road signs without being suspicious of the people who put the signs up. We read books of information about science, mathematics, automotive engineering, travel, geography, the history of costume, and other such factual matters, and we usually assume that the author is doing his best to tell us as truly as he can what he knows. And we are safe in so assuming most of the time. With the emphasis that is being given today to the discussion of biased newspapers, propagandists, and the general untrustworthiness of many of the communications we receive, we are likely to forget that we still have an enormous amount of reliable in-

formation available and that deliberate misinformation, except in warfare, still is more the exception than the rule. The desire for self-preservation that compelled men to evolve means for the exchange of information also compels them to regard the giving of false information as profoundly reprehensible.

At its highest development, the language of reports is known as science. By “highest development” we mean greatest general usefulness. Presbyterian and Catholic, workingman and capitalist, German and Englishman, agree on the meanings of such symbols as 2X2 = ^, 100° C, HNOs, 5:j5 a.m., 1940 a.d., ^000 r.p.m., 1000 kilowatts, pulex irritans, and so on. But how, it may be asked, can there be agreement even about this much among people who are at each other’s throats about practically everything else.? The answer is that circumstances compel them to agree, whether they wish to or not. If, for example, there were a dozen different religious sects in the United States, each insisting on its own way of naming the time of the day and the days of the year, the mere necessity of having a dozen different calendars, a dozen different kinds of watches, and a dozen sets of schedules for business hours, trains, and radio programs, to say nothing of the effort that would be required for translating terms from one nomenclature to another, would make life as we know it impossible.

The language of reports, then, including the more accurate reports of science, is “map” language, and because

it gives us reasonably accurate representations of the “territory” it enables us to get work done. Such language may often be what is commonly termed “dull” or “uninteresting” reading; one does not usually read logarithmic tables or telephone directories for entertainment. But we could not get along without it. There are numberless occasions in the talking and writing we do in everyday life that require that we state things in such a way that everybody will agree with our formulation.

Some Writing Exercises:

The Exclusion of Judgments

The reader will find that practice in writing reports is a quick means of increasing his linguistic awareness. It is an excellent exercise, one which will constantly provide him with his own examples of the principles of language and interpretation under discussion. The reports should be about first-hand experience—scenes the reader has witnessed himself, meetings and social events he has taken part in, people he knows well. They should be of such a nature that they can be verified and agreed upon.

This is not a simple task. A report must exclude all expressions of the writer’s approval or disapproval of the occurrences, persons, or objects he is describing. For example, a report cannot say, “It was a wonderful car,” but must say something like this: “It has been driven 50,000 miles and has never required any repairs.” Again, state-

ments like “Jack lied to us” must be suppressed in favor of the more verifiable statement, “Jack told us he didn’t have the keys to his car with him. However, when he pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket a few minutes later, the keys fell out.” Also, a report may not say, “The senator was stubborn, defiant, and unco-operative,” or “The senator courageously stood by his principles”; it must say instead, “The senator’s vote was the only one against the bill.” Most people regard statements like the following as statements of fact: “He is a thief.” “He is a bad boy.” These again must be excluded in favor of statements of the more verifiable kind: “He was convicted of theft and served two years at Waupun.” “His mother, his father, and most of the neighbors say he is a bad boy.” After all, to say of a man that he is a “thief” is to say in effect, “He has stolen and will steal again” —which is more a prediction than a report. Even to say, “He has stolen,” is to pass a judgment on an act about which there may be difference of opinion among different observers. But to say that he was “convicted of theft” is to make a statement capable of being agreed upon through verification in court and prison records.

Scientific verifiability rests upon the external observation of facts, not upon the heaping up of judgments. If one person says, “Peter is a deadbeat,” and another says, “I think so too,” the statement has not been verified. In court cases, considerable trouble is sometimes caused by

Witnesses who cannot distinguish their judgments from the facts upon which those judgments are based. Cross-examinations under these circumstances go something Hke this:

Witness. That dirty double-crosser Jacobs ratted on me!

Defense Attorney. Your honor, I object.

Judge. Objection sustained. [Witness’s remark is stricken from the record.] Now, try to tell the court exactly what happened.

Witness. He double-crossed me, the dirty, lying rat!

Defense Attorney. Your honor, I object!

fudge. Objection sustained. [Witness’s remark is again stricken from the record.] Will the witness try to stick to the facts.

Witness. But I’m telling you the facts, your honor. He did double-cross me.

This can continue indefinitely unless the cross-examiner exercises some ingenuity in order to get at the facts behind the judgment. To the witness it is a “fact” that he was “double-crossed.” Often hours of patient questioning are required before the factual bases of the judgment are revealed.

The Exclusion of Inferences

Another requirement of reports is that they must make no guesses as to what is going on in other people’s minds. When we say, “He was angry,” we are not reporting, we are making an inference from such observable facts as

the following: “He pounded his fist on the table; he swore; he threw the telephone directory at his stenographer.” In this particular example, the inference appears to be fairly safe; nevertheless, it is important to remember, especially for the purposes of training oneself, that it is an inference. Such expressions as “He thought a lot of himself,” “He was scared of girls,” “She always wants nothing but the best,” should be avoided in favor of the more verifiable “He showed evidences of annoyance when people did not treat him politely,” “He stammered when he asked girls to dance with him,” “She frequently declared that she wanted nothing but the best.”

The Exclusion of ^^Loaded’^ Words

In short, the process of reporting is the process of keeping one’s personal feelings out. In order to do this, one must be constantly on guard against “loaded” words that reveal or arouse feelings. Instead of “sneaked in,” one should say “entered quietly”; instead of “politicians,” “congressmen” or “aldermen”; instead of “officeholder,” “public official”; instead of “tramp,” “homeless unemployed”; instead of “Chinaman,” “Chinese”; instead of “dictatorial set-up,” “centralized authority”; instead of “crackpots,” “holders of uncommon views.” A newspaper reporter, for example, is not permitted to write, “A bunch

of fools who are suckers enough to fall for Senator Smith’s ideas met last evening in that rickety firetrap that disfigures the south edge of town.” Instead he says, “Between seventy-five and a hundred people were present last evening to hear an address by Senator Smith at the Evergreen Gardens near the South Side city limits.”

Second Stage of the Writing Exercise: Slanting

In the course of writing reports of personal experiences, it will be found that in spite of all endeavors to keep judgments out, some will creep in. An account of a man, for example, may go like this: “He had apparently not shaved for several days, and his face and hands were covered with grime. His shoes were torn, and his coat, which was several sizes too small for him, was spotted with dried clay.” Now, in spite of the fact that no judgment has been stated, a very obvious one is implied. Let us contrast this with another description of the same man. “Although his face was bearded and neglected, his eyes were clear, and he looked straight ahead as he walked rapidly down the road. He looked very tall; perhaps the fact that his coat was too small for him emphasized that impression. He was carrying a book under his left arm, and a small terrier ran at his heels.” In this example, the impression about the same man is considerably changed, simply by the inclusion of new details and the subordina-

tion of unfavorable ones. Even if explicit judgments are kept out of one’s writing, implied judgments will get in. How, then, can we ever give an impartial report? The answer is, of course, that we cannot attain complete impartiality while we use the language of everyday life. Even with the very impersonal language of science, the task is sometimes difficult. Nevertheless, we can, by being aware of the favorable or unfavorable feelings that certain words and facts can arouse, attain enough impartiality for practical purposes. Such awareness enables us to balance the implied favorable and unfavorable judgments against each other. To learn to do this, it is a good idea to write two essays at a time on the same subject, both strict reports, to be read side by side: the first to contain facts and details likely to prejudice the reader in favor of the subject, the second to contain those likely to prejudice the reader against it. For example:


He had white teeth. His teeth were uneven.

His eyes were blue, his hair He rarely looked people blond and abundant. straight in the eye.

He had on a clean blue His shirt was frayed at the shirt. cuffs.

He often helped his wife He rarely got through dry-with the dishes. ing dishes without breaking

His pastor spoke very a few. highly of him. His grocer said he was

always slow about paying his bills.

Slanting Both Ways at Once

This process of selecting details favorable or unfavorable to the subject being described may be termed slani-ing. Slanting gives no explicit judgments, but it differs from reporting in that it deliberately makes certain judgments inescapable. The writer striving for impartiality v^^ill, therefore, take care to slant both for and against his subject, trying as conscientiously as he can to keep the balance even. The next stage of the exercise, then, should be to rewrite the parallel essays into a single coherent essay in which details on both sides are included:

His teeth were white, but uneven; his eyes were blue, his hair blond and abundant. He did not often look people straight in the eye. His shirt was slightly frayed at the cuffs, but it was clean. He frequently helped his wife with the dishes, but he broke many of them. Opinion about him in the community was divided. His grocer said he was slow about paying his bills, but his pastor spoke very highly of him.

This example is, of course, oversimplified and admittedly not very graceful. But practice in writing such essays will first of all help to prevent one from slipping unconsciously from observable facts to judgments; that is, from “He was a member of the Ku Klux Klan” to “the dirty scoundrel!” Next, it will reveal how little we really want to be impartial anyway, especially about our best friends, our parents, our alma mater, our own children.

our country, the company we work for, the product we sell, our competitor’s product, or anything else in which our interests are deeply involved. Finally, we will discover that, even if we have no wish to be impartial, we write more clearly, more forcefully, and more convincingly by this process of sticking as close as possible to observable facts. There will be less “hot air” and more substance.

How Judgments Stop Thought

A judgment (“He is a fine boy,” “It was a beautiful service,” “Baseball is a healthful sport,” “She is an awful bore”) is a conclusion, summing up a large number of previously observed facts. The reader is probably familiar with the fact that students, when called upon to write “themes,” almost always have difficulty in writing papers of the required length, because their ideas give out after a paragraph or two. The reason for this is that those early paragraphs contain so many such judgments that there is little left to be said. When the conclusions are carefully excluded, however, and observed facts are given instead, there is never any trouble about the length of papers; in fact, they tend to become too long, since inexperienced writers, when told to give facts, often give far more than are necessary, because they lack discrimination between the important and the trivial. This, how-


ever, is better than the literary constipation with which most students are aflflicted as soon as they get a writing assignment.

Still another consequence of judgments early in the course of a written exercise—and this applies also to hasty judgments in everyday thought—is the temporary blindness they induce. When, for example, an essay starts with the words, “He was a real Wall Street executive,” or “She was a typical cute little co-ed,” if we continue writing at all, we must make all our later statements consistent with those judgments. The result is that all the individual characteristics of this particular “executive” or this particular “co-ed” are lost sight of entirely; and the rest of the essay is likely to deal not with observed facts, but with the writer’s private notion (based on previously read stories, movies, pictures, etc.) of what “Wall Street executives” or “typical co-eds” look like. The premature judgment, that is, often prevents us from seeing what is directly in front of us. Even if the writer feels sure at the beginning of a written exercise that the man he is describing is a “loafer” or that the scene he is describing is a “beautiful residential suburb,” he will conscientiously keep such notions out of his head, lest his vision be obstructed.

A few weeks of practice in writing reports, slanted reports, and reports slanted both ways will improve powers of observation, as well as ability to recognize soundness of observation in the writings of others. A sharpened


sense for the distinction between facts and judgments, facts and inferences, will reduce susceptibility to the flurries of frenzied public opinion which certain people find it to their interest to arouse. Alarming judgments and inferences can be made to appear inevitable by means of skillfully slanted reports. A reader who is aware of the technique of slanting, however, cannot be stampeded by such methods. He knows too well that there may be other relevant facts which have been left out. Who worries now about the “Twenty-one Days Left to Save the American Way of Life” of the 1936 presidential campaign? Who worries now about the “snooping into private lives” and the “establishment of an American Gestapo” that were supposed to result from the 1940 census? Yet people worry about such things at the time.


I. Here are a number of statements which the reader may attempt to classify as judgments, inferences, or reports. Since the distinctions are not always clear-cut, a one-word answer will not ordinarily be adequate. If the reader finds himself in disagreement with others as to the classification of some of the statements, he is advised to remember the Social Worker and the Advertising Man and not to argue. Note that we are concerned here with the nature of the statements, not their truth or falsity;

for example, the statement, “Water freezes at io° Centigrade,” is, although inaccurate, a report.

a. She goes to church only in order to show off her clothes.

b. A penny saved is a penny earned.

c. Loveliest of trees, the cherry now

Is hung with bloom along the bough.


d. In the old days, newspapers used to tell the truth.

e. The German-American Bund is a Nazi propaganda agency.

f. Belgium has been called the Niobe of nations.

g. “Italy’s would-be invaders can’t bUtzkrieg through country which is crisscrossed by a whole series of mountain ranges and whose narrow passes and extremely few serpentine roads are guarded by large and determined Greek forces.”

Chicago Daily News h. Senator Smith has for a long time secretly nursed presidential ambitions. i. Piping down the valleys wild. Piping songs of pleasant glee, On a cloud I saw a child, And he laughing said to me:

“Pipe a song about a Lamb!” So I piped with merry cheer. “Piper, pipe that song again;” So I piped: he wept to hear.


j. “But the liberals needn’t be feared if you understand them. The thing to do is to keep constantly posted on what they are up to and treat them as something that got on your shoe. They are mostly noise, and an honest man has the advantage, because truth and tolerance simply are not in


k. “And Adam lived an hundred and thirty years, and begat a son in his own Hkeness, after his image; and called his name Seth: And the days of Adam after he had begotten Seth were eight hundred years: and he begat sons and daughters: And all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred and thirty years: and he died.”—Genesis 5:3-5

2. In addition to trying such exercises in report writing and the exclusion of judgments and inferences as are suggested in this chapter, it is suggested that the reader try writing (a) reports heavily slanted against persons or events he likes, and (b) reports heavily slanted in favor of persons or events he thoroughly dislikes. For example, the ardent Democrat might show a Republican rally in a favorable light and a Democratic rally in an unfavorable light; the ardent Republican might reverse this procedure. This is a necessary preliminary to “slanting both ways at once,” which is obviously an impossible task for anyone who can see things only in one way. Incidentally, the “Reporter at Large” department and the “Profiles” department of The New Yorker often offer good examples of the report technique: explicit judgments are few, and a real effort is made to give at least the appearance of “slanting both ways at once.”


Dictionary definitions frequently offer verbal substitutes for an unknown term which only conceal a lack of real understanding. Thus a person might look up a foreign word and be quite satisfied with the meaning ‘^bullfinch” without the slightest ability to identify or describe this bird. Understanding does not come through dealings with words alone, but rather with the things for which they stand. Dictionary definitions permit us to hide from ourselves and others the extent of our ignorance.

‘ O H. R. HUSE

How Dictionaries Are Made

IT IS an almost universal belief that every word has a “correct meaning,” that we learn these meanings principally from teachers and grammarians (except that most of the time we don’t bother to, so that we ordinarily speak “sloppy English”), and that dictionaries and grammars are the “supreme authority” in matters of meaning and usage. Few people ask by what authority the writers of dictionaries and grammars say what they say. The docility with which most people bow down to the dictionary is amazing, and the person who says, “Well, the dictionary is wrong!” is looked upon with smiles of pity



and amusement which say plainly, “Poor fellow! He’s really quite sane otherwise.”

Let us see how dictionaries are made and how the editors arrive at definitions. What follows applies, incidentally, only to those dictionary offices where first-hand, original research goes on—not those in which editors simply copy existing dictionaries. The task of writing a dictionary begins with the reading of vast amounts of the literature of the period or subject that it is intended to cover. As the editors read, they copy on cards every interesting or rare word, every unusual or peculiar occurrence of a common word, a large number of common words in their ordinary uses, and also the sentences in which each of these words appears, thus:

That is to say, the context of each word is collected, along with the word itself. For a really big job of dictionary writing, such as the Oxford English Dictionary (usually bound in about twenty-five volumes), millions of such cards are collected, and the task of editing occupies decades. As the cards are collected, they are alphabetized and sorted. When the sorting is completed, there


will be for each word anywhere from two or three to several hundred illustrative quotations, each on its card.

To define a word, then, the dictionary editor places before him the stack of cards illustrating that word; each of the cards represents an actual use of the word by a writer of some literary or historical importance. He reads the cards carefully, discards some, re-reads the rest, and divides up the stack according to what he thinks are the several senses of the word. Finally, he writes his definitions, following the hard-and-fast rule that each definition must be based on what the quotations in front of him reveal about the meaning of the word. The editor cannot be influenced by what he thinks a given word ought to mean. He must work according to the cards, or not at all.

The writing of a dictionary, therefore, is not a task of setting up authoritative statements about the “true meanings” of words, but a task of recording, to the best of one’s ability, what various words have meant to authors in the distant or immediate past. The writer of a dictionary is a historian, not a law-giver. If, for example, we had been writing a dictionary in 1890, or even as late as 1919, we could have said that the word “broadcast” means “to scatter,” seed and so on; but we could not have decreed that from 1921 on, the commonest meaning of the word should become “to disseminate audible mes-

sages, etc., by wireless telephony.” To regard the dictionary as an “authority,” therefore, is to credit the dictionary writer with gifts of prophecy which neither he nor anyone else possesses. In choosing our words when we speak or write, we can be guided by the historical record aflorded us by the dictionary, but we cannot be bound by it, because new situations, new experiences, new inventions, new feelings, are always compelling us to give new uses to old words. Looking under a “hood,” we should ordinarily have found, five hundred years ago, a monk; today, we find a motorcar engine.

Verbal and Physical Contexts

The way in which the dictionary writer arrives at his definitions is merely the systematization of the way in which we all learn the meanings of words, beginning at infancy, and continuing for the rest of our lives. Let us say that we have never heard the word “oboe” before, and we overhear a conversation in which the following sentences occur:

He used to be the best oboe player in town. . . . Whenever they came to that oboe part in the third movement, he used to get very excited. … I saw him one day at the music shop, buying a new reed for his oboe. . . . He never liked to play the clarinet after he started playing the oboe. He said it wasn’t so much fun, because it was too easy.

Although the word may be unfamiHar, its meaning becomes clear to us as we listen. After hearing the first sentence, we know that an “oboe” is “played,” so that it must be either a game or a musical instrument. With the second sentence the possibility of its being a game is eliminated. With each succeeding sentence the possibilities as to what an “oboe” may be are narrowed down until we get a fairly clear idea of what is meant. This is how we learn by verbal context.

But even independently of this, we learn by physical and social context. Let us say that we are playing golf and that we have hit the ball in a certain way with certain unfortunate results, so that our companion says to us, “That’s a bad slice.” He repeats this remark every time our ball fails to go straight. If we are reasonably bright, we learn in a very short time to say, when it happens again, “That’s a bad slice.” On one occasion, however, our friend says to us, “That’s not a slice this time; that’s a hoo}{.” In this case we consider what has happened, and we wonder what is different about the last stroke from those previous. As soon as we make the distinction, we have added still another word to our vocabulary. The result is that after nine holes of golf, we can use both these words accurately—and perhaps several others as well, such as “divot,” “number-five iron,” “approach shot,” without ever having been told what they mean. Indeed, we may play golf for years without ever

being able to give a dictionary definition of “to slice”: “To strike (the ball) so that the face of the club draws inward across the face of the ball, causing it to curve toward the right in flight (with a right-handed player)” ( Webster’s New International Dictio7iary). But even without being able to give such a definition, we should still be able to use the word accurately whenever the occasion demanded.

We learn the meanings of practically all our words (which are, it will be remembered, merely complicated noises), not from dictionaries, not from definitions, but from hearing these noises as they accompany actual situations in life and learning to associate certain noises with certain situations. Even as dogs learn to recognize “words,” as for example by hearing “biscuit” at the same time as an actual biscuit is held before their noses, so do we all learn to interpret language by being aware of the happenings that accompany the noises people make at us—by being aware, in short, of contexts.

The “definitions” given by little children in school show clearly how they associate words with situations; they almost always define in terms of physical and social contexts: “Punishment is when you have been bad and they put you in a closet and don’t let you have any supper.” “Newspapers are what the paper boy brings and you wrap up the garbage with it.” These are good definitions. The main reason that they cannot be used in die-

tionaries is that they are too specific; it would be impossible to list the myriads of situations in which every word has been used. For this reason, dictionaries give definitions on a high level of abstraction; that is, with particular references left out for the sake of conciseness. This is another reason why it is a great mistake to regard a dictionary definition as “telling us all about” a word.

Extensional and Intensional Meaning

From this point on, it will be necessary to employ some special terms in talking about meaning: extensional meaning, which will also be referred to as denotation, and intensional meaning —note the s —which will also be referred to as connotation} Briefly explained, the extensional meaning of an utterance is that which it points to or denotes in the extensional world, referred to in Chapter 3 above. That is to say, the extensional meaning is something that cannot be expressed in words, because it is that which words stand for. An easy way to remember this is to put your hand over your mouth and point whenever you are asked to give an extensional meaning.

^ The words extension and intension are borrowed from logic; denotation and connotation are borrowed from literary cridcism. The former pair of terms will ordinarily be used, therefore, when we are talking about people’s “thinking habits”; the latter, when we are talking about words themselves.

The iniensiofjol meaning of a word or expression, on the other hand, is that which is suggested (connoted) inside one’s head. Roughly speaking, whenever we express the meaning of words by uttering more words, we are giving intensional meaning, or connotations. To remember this, put your hand over your eyes and let the words spin around in your head.

Utterances may have, of course, both extensional and intensional meaning. If they have no intensional meaning at all—that is, if they start no notions whatever spinning about in our heads—they are meaningless noises, like foreign languages that we do not understand. On the other hand, it is possible for utterances to have no extensional meaning at all, in spite of the fact that they may start many notions spinning about in our heads. Since this point will be discussed more fully in Chapter 5, perhaps one example will be enough: the statement, “Angels watch over my bed at night,” is one that has intensional but no extensional meaning. This does not mean that there are no angels watching over my bed at night. When we say that the statement has no extensional meaning, we are merely saying that we cannot see, touch, photograph, or in any scientific manner detect the presence of angels. The result is that, if an argument begins on the subject whether or not angels watch over my bed, there is no way of ending the argument to the satisfaction of all disputants, the Christians and the non-

Christians, the pious and the agnostic, the mystical and the scientific. Therefore, whether we beUeve in angels or not, knowing in advance that any argument on the subject will be both endless and futile, we can avoid getting into fights about it.

When, on the other hand, statements have extensional content, as v/hen we say, “This room is fifteen feet long,” arguments can come to a close. No matter how many guesses there are about the length of the room, all discussion ceases when someone produces a tape measure. This, then, is the important difference between extensional and intensional meanings: namely, when utterances have extensional meanings, discussion can be ended and agreement reached; when utterances have intensional meanings only and no extensional meanings, arguments may, and often do, go on indefinitely. Such arguments can result only in irreconcilable conflict. Among individuals, they may result in the breaking up of friendships; in society, they often split organizations into bitterly opposed groups; among nations, they may aggravate existing tensions so seriously as to become contributory causes of war.

Arguments of this kind may be termed “non-sense arguments,” because they are based on utterances about which no sense data can be collected. Needless to say, there are occasions when the hyphen may be omitted— that depends on one’s feelings toward the particular ar-

gument under consideration. The reader is requested to provide his own examples of “non-sense arguments.” Even the foregoing example of the angels may give offense to some people, in spite of the fact that no attempt is made to deny or affirm the existence of angels. He can imagine, therefore, the uproar that might result from giving a number of examples, from theology, politics, law, economics, literary criticism, and other fields in which it is not customary to distinguish clearly sense from non-sense.

The ^^One Word, One Meaning” Fallacy

Everyone, of course, who has ever given any thought to the meanings of words has noticed that they are always shifting and changing in meaning. Usually, people regard this as a misfortune, because it “leads to sloppy thinking” and “mental confusion.” To remedy this condition, they are likely to suggest that we should all agree on “one meaning” for each word and use it only with that meaning. Thereupon it will occur to them that we simply cannot make people agree in this way, even if we could set up an ironclad dictatorship under a committee of lexicographers who could place censors in every newspaper office and dictaphones in every home. The situation, therefore, appears hopeless.

Such an impasse is avoided when we start with a new

premise altogether—one of the premises upon which modern hnguistic thought is based: namely, that no word ever has exactly the same meaning twice. The extent to which this premise fits the facts can be demonstrated in a number of ways. First, if we accept the proposition that the contexts of an utterance determine its meaning, it becomes apparent that since no two contexts are ever exactly the same, no two meanings can ever be exactly the same. How can we “fix the meaning” even for as common an expression as “to believe in” when it can be used in such sentences as the following.’^

I believe in you (I have confidence in you).

I believe in democracy (I accept the principles implied by the

term democracy). I believe in Santa Claus (It is my opinion that Santa Claus


Secondly, we can take for example a word of “simple” meaning like “kettle.” But when John says “kettle,” its intensional meanings to him are the common characteristics of all the kettles John remembers. When Peter says “kettle,” however, its intensional meanings to him are the common characteristics of all the kettles he remembers. iVo matter how small or how negligible the difer-ences may be between ]ohjis “kettle” and Peter s “kettle,” there is some difference.

Finally, let us examine utterances in terms of exten-sional meanings. If John, Peter, Harold, and George each

say “my typewriter,” we would have to point to four different typewriters to get the extensional meaning in each case: John’s new Underwood, Peter’s old Corona, Harold’s L, C. Smith, and die undenotable intended “typewriter” that George plans some day to buy: “My typewriter, when I buy one, will be a noiseless.” Also, if John says “my typewriter” today, and again “my typewriter” tomorrow, the extensional meaning is different in the two cases, because the typewriter is not exactly the same from one day to the next (nor from one minute to the next): slow processes of wear, change, and decay are going on constantly. Although we can say, then, that the differences in the meanings of a word on one occasion, on another occasion a minute later, and on still another occasion another minute later, are negligible, we cannot say that the meanings are exactly the same.

To say dogmatically that we “know what a word means” in advance of its utterance is nonsense. All we can know in advance is approximately what it will mean. After the utterance, we interpret what has been said in die light of both verbal and physical contexts, and act according to our interpretation. An examination of the verbal context of an utterance, as well as the examination of the utterance itself, directs us to the in-tensional meanings; an examination of the physical context directs us to the extensional meanings. When John says to James, “Bring me that book, will you.?” James

looks in the direction of John’s pointed finger (physical context) and sees a desk with several books on it (physical context); he thinks back over their previous conversation (verbal context) and knovv^s which of those books is being referred to.

Interpretation must be based, therefore, on the totality of contexts. If it were otherwise, we should not be able to account for the fact that even if we fail to use the right (customary) words in some situations, people can very frequently understand us. For example:

A. Gosh, look at that second baseman go! B (looking). You mean the shortstop? A. Yes, that’s what I mean.

A. There must be something wrong with the oil line; the engine has started to balk.

B. Don’t you mean “gas line”? A, Yes—didn’t I say gas line?

Contexts sometimes indicate so clearly what we mean that often we do not even have to say what we mean in order to be understood.

The Ignoring of Contexts

It is clear, then, that the ignoring of contexts in any act of interpretation is at best a stupid practice. At its worst, it can be a vicious practice. A common example is the sensational newspaper story in which a few words

by a public personage are torn out of their context and made the basis of a completely misleading account. There is the incident of an Armistice Day speaker, a university teacher, who declared before a high-school assembly that the Gettysburg Address was “a powerful piece of propaganda.” The context clearly revealed that “propaganda” was being used according to its dictionary meanings rather than according to its popular meanings; it also revealed that the speaker was a very great admirer of Lincoln’s. However, the local newspaper, completely ignoring the context, presented the account in such a way as to convey the impression that the speaker had called Lincoln a liar. On this basis, the newspaper began a campaign against the instructor. The speaker remonstrated with the editor of the newspaper, who replied, in effect, “I don’t care what else you said. You said the Gettysburg Address was propaganda, didn’t you?” This appeared to the editor complete proof that Lincoln had been maligned and that the speaker deserved to be discharged from his position at the university. Similar practices may be found in advertisements. A reviewer may be quoted on the jacket of a book as having said, “A brilliant work,” while reading of the context may reveal that what he really said was, “It just falls short of being a brilliant work.” There are some people who will always be able to find a defense for such a practice in saying, “But he did use the words, ‘a brilliant work,’ didn’t he?”

People in the course of argument very frequently complain about words meaning different things to different people. Instead of complaining, they should accept it as a matter of course. It would be startling indeed if the word “justice,” for example, were to have the same meaning to the nine justices of the United States Supreme Court; we should get nothing but unanimous decisions. It would be even more startling if “justice” meant the same to Fiorello La Guardia as to Josef Stalin. If we can get deeply into our consciousness the principle that no word ever has the same meaning twice, we will develop the habit of automatically examining contexts, and this enables us to understand better what others are saying. As it is, however, we are all too likely to have signal reactions to certain words and read into people’s remarks meanings that were never intended. Then we waste energy in angrily accusing people of “intellectual dishonesty” or “abuse of words,” when their only sin is that they use words in ways unlike our own, as they can hardly help doing, especially if their background has been widely different from ours. There are cases of intellectual dishonesty and of the abuse of words, of course, but they do not always occur in the places where people think they do.

In the study of history or of cultures other than our own, contexts take on special importance. To say, “There

was no running water or electricity in the house,” does not condemn an EngHsh house in 1570, but says a great deal against a house in Chicago in 1941. Again, if we wish to understand the Constitution of the United States, it is not enough, as our historians now tell us, merely to look up all the words in the dictionary and to read the interpretations written by Supreme Court justices. We must see the Constitution in its historical context: the conditions of life, the current ideas, the fashionable prejudices, and the probable interests of the people who drafted the Constitution. After all, the words “The United States of America” stood for quite a different-sized nation and a different culture in 1790 from what they stand for today. When it comes to very big subjects, the range of contexts to be examined, verbal, social, and historical, may become very large indeed.

The Interaction of Words

All this is not to say, however, that the reader might just as well throw away his dictionary, since contexts are so important. Any word in a sentence—any sentence in a paragraph, any paragraph in a larger unit—whose meaning is revealed by its context, is itself part of the context of the rest of the text. To look up a word in a dictionary, therefore, frequently explains not only the word itself, but the rest of the sentence, paragraph, con-

versation, or essay in which it is found. All words within a given context interact upon one another.

ReaHzing, then, that a dictionary is a historical work, we should understand the dictionary thus; “The word mother has most frequently been used in the past among English-speaking people to indicate a female parent.” From this we can safely infer, “If that is how it has been used, that is what it probably means in the sentence I am trying to understand.” This is what we normally do, of course; after we look up a word in the dictionary, we re-examine the context to see if the definition fits.

A dictionary definition, therefore, is an invaluable guide to interpretation. Words do not have a single “correct meaning”; they apply to groups of similar situations, which might be called areas of meaning. It is for definition in terms of areas of meaning that a dictionary is useful. In each use of any word, we examine the particular context and the extensional events denoted (if possible) to discover the point intended within the area of meaning.


I. It has been said in this chapter that to say tliat one word should have one meaning or that we can know the meaning of a word in advance of its utterance is non-

sense. Here are some examples of the uses of the word air. To see how different they actually are, translate the sentences into other words.

She had an air of triumph.

John left the casting director’s office walking on air.

On summer nights the air was warm and fragrant.

He gave her the air.

Want some air in your tires, Mister?

She certainly does give herself airsl

There was a suspicious air about the whole thing.

Slum children benefit from getting out into the air and sun-


A gentle air was moving the curtains at the open window.

In 1789 change was in the air.

At that she just went up in the air.

High up in the air a hawk was circling.

The doctors say he needs a change of air.

It would be better if this whole dirty business were brought out into the open air. . . . There’s nothing better in such cases than the free air of public discussion.

Jonathan was always building castles in the air.

As they left the theater, half of the audience was whistling the catchy air.

When he got across the border he filled his lungs with the air of freedom.

The Philharmonic is on the air every Sunday afternoon.

2. Provide contexts, in this case sentences, which illustrate some of the various areas of meaning you can find in the following words:

arm dog flight frog date people rich free

3. Sitting where you are, say the words, “Come here.” Now after moving to another seat, say “Come here” again. Is the extensional meaning of the words still the same? Has the intensional meaning been affected.f*

Take a blank sheet of paper and sign your name ten or a dozen times. There are now before you ten or a dozen examples of the extensional meaning of the words “my signature.” Compare them. You might cut them apart and match them up against a light. Are the extensional meanings in any two cases the same.” Would they be the same if they were printed.”

“To make roasted potatoes, first wash the potatoes and peel them. After the potatoes have been peeled, parboil them and place them in the pan with the roast to brown. When done, serve the potatoes with gravy made from the juices of the meat.” What can you say about the extensional meanings of “potatoes” throughout this passage.”


Are words in Phatic Communion [“a type of speech in which ties of union are created by a mere exchange of words”] used primarily to convey meaning, the meaning which is symbolically theirs? Certainly not! They fulfil a social function and that is their principal aim, but they are neither the result of intellectual reflection, nor do they necessarily arouse reflection in the listener.


Noises as Expression

WHAT complicates the problems of interpretation above all is that often words are not used informatively at all. In fact, w^e have every reason to believe that the ability to use noises as symbols was developed only recently in the course of our evolution. Long before we developed language as we know it, we probably made, like the lower animals, all sorts of animal cries, expressive of such internal conditions as hunger, fear, triumph, and sexual desire. We can recognize a variety of such noises and the conditions they indicate in our domestic animals. Gradually these noises seem to have become more and more differentiated: consciousness expanded. Grunts and gibberings became symbolic lan-


guage. But, although we developed symbolic language, the habit of making noises expressing, rather than reporting, our internal conditions has remained. The result is that we use language in presymbolic ways; that is, as the equivalent of screams, howls, purrs, and gibbering. These presymbolic uses of language coexist with our symbolic systems, and we still have constant recourse to diem in the talking we do in everyday life.

The presymbolic character of much of our talk is most clearly illustrated in cries expressive of strong feeling of any kind. If, for example, we carelessly step off a curb when a car is coming, it doesn’t much matter whether someone yells, “Look out!” or “Kiwotsuke!” or “Hey!” or “Prends garde!” or simply utters a scream, so long as whatever noise is made is uttered loud enough to alarm us. It is the fear expressed in the loudness and the tone of the cry that conveys the necessary sensations, and not the words. Similarly, commands given sharply and angrily usually produce quicker results than the same commands uttered tonelessly. The quality of the voice itself, that is to say, has a power of expressing feelings that is almost independent of the symbols used. We can say, “I hope you’ll come to see us again,” in a way that clearly indicates that we hope the visitor never comes back. Or again, if a young lady with whom we are strolling says, “The moon is bright tonight,” we are able to tell by the


tone whether she is making a meteorological observation or indicating that she wants to be kissed.

Snarl-Words and Purr-Words

The making of noises with the vocal organs is a muscular activity. Many of our muscular activities are involuntary. Many of our speeches—especially exclamations— are likewise involuntary. Our responses to powerful stimuli, such as to something that makes us very angry, are a complex of muscular and physiological activities: the contraction of fighting muscles, the increase of blood pressure, the tearing of hair, and so on, and the making of noises, such as growls and snarls. Human beings, however, probably because they consider it beneath their dignity to express their anger in purely animalistic noises, do not ordinarily growl like dogs, but substitute series of words, such as “You dirty double-crosser!” “You filthy scum!” Similarly, instead of purring or wagging the tail, the human being again substitutes speeches such as “She’s the sweetest girl in all the world!” “Oh, dear, what a cute baby!’*

Speeches such as these are, therefore, complicated human equivalents of snarling and purring and are not symbolic in the same sense that the statement, “Chicago is in the state of Illinois,” is symbolic. That is to say, “She’s the sweetest girl in all the world” is not a state-

ment about the girl, but a revelation of the speaker’s feelings—a revelation such as is made among lower animals by wagging the tail or purring. Similarly, the ordinary oratorical and editorial denunciation of “Reds,” “Wall Street,” “corporate interests,” “radicals,” “economic royalists,” and “fifth columnists,” are often only protracted snarls, grou^ls, and yelps, with, however, the surface appearance of logical and grammatical articulation. These series of “snarl-w^ords” and “purr-w^ords,” as it will be convenient to call them, are not reports describing conditions in the extensional world, but symptoms of disturbance, unpleasant or pleasant, in the speaker.

Indeed, what we have called “judgments” in Chapter 3 —words expressive of our likes and dislikes—are extremely complicated snarls and purrs. Their principal function is to indicate the approval or disapproval felt by the speaker, although, to be sure, they often indicate at the same time the reasons for those feelings. To call judgments snarls and purrs may seem to be unduly disrespectful of the human race, but such disrespect is not intended. The terminology is used merely to emphasize the fact that judgments, like snarls and purrs, do not as such have extensional content. This is an important point to remember in controversy.

For example, let us suppose that Smith has said, “Senator Booth is a fourflusher,” and that Jones has said, “Senator Booth is a great statesman.” The question most


likely to be argued, under what are now normal circumstances, will be, “Is Senator Booth a fourflusher or a great statesman?” The progress of such an argument is fairly predictable: Smith cites facts to “prove” that the senator is a “fourflusher”; Jones comes right back with other facts to “prove” the contrary. Each will deny or belittle the facts advanced by the other. Their voices will become louder; they will start to gesticulate wildly; they will start shaking their fists under each other’s noses. Finally, their friends may have to separate them. Such a conclusion, as we have seen, is inevitable when questions without exten-sional content, or non-sense questions, are argued.

Disputes about presymbolic utterances should therefore be avoided. Often such snarls and purrs are not merely a matter of a few words, but of paragraphs, of entire editorials or speeches, and sometimes of entire books. The question to be discussed should never take the form, “Is Hitler really a beast as the speaker says?” but rather, “Why does the speaker feel as he does?” Once we know why the judgment has been made, we may follow the speaker in the judgment or make a different one of our own.

All this is not to say that we should not snarl or purr. In the first place, we couldn’t stop ourselves if we wanted to; and in the second, there are many occasions that demand good violent snarls, as well as soft purrs of delight. Subtle and discriminating judgments, made by sensitive

and intelligent individuals, are well worth listening to, since they contribute to our moral sensitivity. But we must guard ourselves against mistaking these for reports.

Noises for Noise’s Sake

There are, of course, other presymbolic uses of language. Sometimes we talk simply for the sake of hearing ourselves talk; that is, for the same reason that we play golf or dance. The activity gives us a pleasant sense of being alive. Children prattling, adults singing in the bathtub, are alike enjoying the sound of their voices. Sometimes large groups make noises together, as in group singing, group recitation, or group chanting, for similar presymbolic reasons. In all this, the significance of the words used is almost completely irrelevant. We often, for example, may chant the most lugubrious words about a desire to be carried back to a childhood home in old Virginia, when in actuality we have never been there and haven’t the slightest intention of going.

What we call “social conversation” is again presymbolic in character. When we are at a tea or dinner party, for example, we all have to talk—about anything: the weather, the performance of the Chicago White Sox, Thomas Mann’s latest book, or Myrna Loy’s last picture. It is typical of these conversations that, except among very good friends, few of the remarks made on these sub-

jects are ever important enough to be worth making for their informative value. Nevertheless, it is regarded as “rude” to remain silent. Indeed, in such matters as greetings and farewells: “Good morning”—”Lovely day”— “And how’s your family these days?”—”It was a pleasure meeting you”—”Do look us up the next time you’re in town”—it is regarded as a social error not to say these things even if we do not mean them. There are numberless daily situations in which we talk simply because it would be impolite not to. Every social group has its own form of this kind of talking—”the art of conversation,” “small talk,” or the mutual “kidding” that Americans love so much. From these social practices it is possible to infer, as a general principle, that the prevention of silence is itself an important function of speech, and that it is completely impossible for us in society to talk only when we “have something to say.”

This presymbolic talk for talk’s sake is, like the cries of animals, a form of activity. We talk together about nothing at all and thereby establish friendships. The purpose of the talk is not the communication of information, as the symbols used would seem to imply (“I see the Dodgers are out in the lead again”), but the establishment of communion. Human beings have many ways of establishing communion among themselves: breaking bread together, playing games together, working together. But talking together is the most easily arranged

of all these forms of collective activity. The togetherness of the talking, then, is the most important element in social conversation; the subject matter is only secondary.

Presymbolic Language in Ritual

Sermons, political caucuses, conventions, “pep rallies,” and other ceremonial gatherings illustrate the fact that all groups—religious, political, patriotic, scientific, and occupational—like to gather together at intervals for the purpose of sharing certain accustomed activities, wearing special costumes (vestments in religious organizations, regalia in lodges, uniforms in patriotic societies, and so on), eating together (banquets), displaying the flags, ribbons, or emblems of their group, and marching in processions. Among these ritual activities is always included a number of speeches, either traditionally worded or specially composed for the occasion, whose principal function is not to give the audience information it did not have before, not to create new ways of feeling, but something else altogether.

What this something else is, we shall analyze more fully in Chapter 7 on “Directive Language.” We can analyze now, however, one aspect of language as it appears in ritual speeches. Let us look at what happens at a “pep rally” such as precedes college football games. The members of “our team” are “introduced” to a crowd that

already knows them. Called upon to make speeches, the players mutter a few incoherent and often ungram-matical remarks, which are received with wild applause. The leaders of the rally make fantastic promises about the mayhem to be performed on the opposing team the next day. The crowd utters “cheers,” which normally consist of animalistic noises arranged in extremely primitive rhythms. No one comes out any wiser or better in-jormed than he was before he went in.

To some extent religious ceremonies are equally puzzling at first glance. The priest or clergyman in charge utters set speeches, often in a language incomprehensible to the congregation (Hebrew in orthodox Jewish synagogues, Latin in the Roman Catholic Church, Sanskrit in Chinese and Japanese temples), with the result that, as often as not, no information whatsoever is communicated to those present.

If we approach these linguistic events as students of language trying to understand what is happening and if we examine our own reactions when we enter into the spirit of such occasions, we cannot help observing that, whatever the words used in ritual utterance may signify, we often do not think very much about their signification during the course of the ritual. Most of us, for example, have often repeated the Lord’s Prayer or sung “The Star-spangled Banner” without thinking about the words at all. As children we are taught to repeat such sets of words

before we can understand them, and many of us continue to say them for the rest of our lives without bothering about their signification. Only the superficial, however, will dismiss these facts as “simply showing what fools’ human beings are.” We cannot regard such utterances as “meaningless,” because they have a genuine effect upon us. We may come out of church, for example, with no clear memory of what the sermon was about, but with a sense nevertheless that the service has somehow “done us good.”

Ritualistic utterances, therefore, whether made up of words that have symbolic significance at other times, of words in foreign or obsolete tongues, or of meaningless syllables, may be regarded as consisting in large part of presymbolic uses of language: that is, accustomed sets of noises which convey no information, but to which feelings (in this case group feelings) are attached. Such utterances rarely make sense to anyone not a member of the group. The abracadabra of a lodge meeting is absurd to anyone but a member of the lodge. When language becomes ritual, that is to say, its effect becomes to a considerable extent independent of whatever significations the words once possessed.

The Importance of Understanding the Presym-bolic Uses of Langimge

Presymbolic uses of language have tliis characteristic in common: their functions can be performed, if necessary, without the use of grammatically and syntactically articulated symbolic words. They can even be performed without recognizable speech at all. Group feeling may be established, for example, among animals by collective barking or howling, and among human beings by college cheers, community singing, and such collective noise-making activities. Indications of friendliness such as we give when we say “Good morning” or “Nice day, isn’t it?” can be given by smiles, gestures, or, as among animals, by nuzzling or sniffing. Frowning, laughing, smiling, jumping up and down, can satisfy a large number of needs for expression, without the use of verbal symbols. But the use of verbal symbols is more customary among human beings, so that instead of expressing our feelings by knocking a man down, we often verbally blast him to perdition; instead of drowning our sorrows in drink, we perhaps write poems.

To understand the presymbolic elements that enter into our everyday language is extremely important. We cannot restrict our speech to the giving and asking of factual information; we cannot confine ourselves strictly to

Statements that are literally true, or we should often be unable to say even “Pleased to meet you” when the occasion demanded. The intellectually persnickety are always telling us that we “ought to say what we mean” and “mean what we say,” and “talk only when we have something to talk about.” These are, of course, impossible prescriptions.

Ignorance of the existence of these presymbolic uses of language is not so common among uneducated people (who often perceive such things intuitively) as it is among those “educated” people who, having a great contempt for the stupidity of others, have a correspondingly high opinion of their own perspicacity. Such “enlightened” people listen to the chatter at teas and receptions and conclude from the triviality of the conversation that all the guests except themselves are fools. They may discover that people often come away from church services without any clear memory of the sermon and conclude that church-goers are either fools or hypocrites. They may hear the political oratory of the opposition party, wonder “how anybody can believe such rot,” and conclude therefrom that people in general are so unintelligent that it would be impossible for democracy to be made to work. (They will overlook the fact, of course, that similar conclusions could be drawn from the speeches they applaud at their own party conventions.) Almost all such gloomy conclusions about the stupidity

or hypocrisy of our friends and neighbors are unjustifiable on such evidence, because they usually come from applying the standards of symbolic language to linguistic events that are either partly or wholly presymbolic in character.

One further illustration may make this clearer. Let us suppose that we are on the roadside struggling with a flat tire. A not-very-bright-looking but friendly youth comes up and asks, “Got a flat tire?” If we insist upon interpreting his words literally, we will regard this as an extremely silly question and our answer may be, “Can’t you see I have, you dumb ox.f^” If we pay no attention to what the words say, however, and understand his meaning, we will return his gesture of friendly interest by showing equal friendliness, and in a short while he may be helping us to change the tire. In a similar way, many situations in life as well as in literature demand that we pay no attention to what the words say, since the meaning may often be a great deal more intelligent and intelligible than the surface sense of the words themselves. It is probable that a great deal of our pessimism about the world, about humanity, and about democracy may be due in part to the fact that unconsciously we apply the standards of symbolic language to presymbolic utterances.


Try to live a whole day without any presymbolic uses of language, restricting yourself solely to (i) specific statements of fact which contribute to the hearer’s information; (2) specific requests for needed information or services. This exercise is recommended only to those whose devotion to science and the experimental method is greater than their desire to keep their friends.


Tens of thousands of years have elapsed since we shed our tails, but we are still communicating with a viedium developed to meet the needs of arboreal man. . . . We may smile at the linguistic illusions of primitive man, but may we forget that the verbal machinery on which we so readily rely, and with which our metaphysicians still profess to probe the Nature of Existence, was set ■up by him, and may be responsible for other ilhisions hardly less gross and not more easily eradicable?


The Double Task of Language

REPORT language, as we have seen, is instrumental in – character—that is, instrumental in getting work done; presymbolic language expresses the feelings of the speaker and is an activity in itself, pleasurable or not, as the case may be. Considering language from the point of view of the hearer, we can say that report language informs us and that presymbolic language affects us— that is, affects our feelings. When language is affective, j| it has the character of a kind of force. A spoken insult, for example, provokes a return insult, just as a blow provokes a return blow; a loud and peremptory command compels, just as a push compels; talking and shouting are


as much a display of energy as the pounding of the chest.

Now, if someone screams in a loud piercing voice, “the house is on fire!!” two tasks are performed: first, insofar as this utterance is a report, it informs us of a fact; secondly, insofar as the loudness and the screaming quality of the voice express the speaker’s feelings, it oQects our feelings. That is to say, informative and affective elements are often present at once in the same utterance.^ And the first of the affective elements in speech, as this example illustrates, is the tone of voice, its loudness or softness, its pleasantness or unpleasantness, its variations during the course of the utterance in volume and intonation.

Another affective element in language is rhythm. Rhythm is the name we give to the effect produced by the repetition of auditory (or kinesthetic) stimuli at fairly regular intervals. From the primitive beat of the tomtom to the most subtle delicacies of civilized poetry and music, there is a continuous development and refinement of man’s responsiveness to rhythm. To produce rhythm is to arouse attention and interest; so affective is

* Such terms as “emotional” and “emotive,” which imply misleading distinctions between the “emotional appeals” and “intellectual appeals” of language, should be carefully avoided. In any case, “emotional” applies too specifically to strong feelings. The word “affective,” however, in such an expression as “the affective uses of language,” describes not only the way in which language can arouse strong feelings, but also the way in which it arouses extremely subtle, sometimes unconscious, responses. “Affective” has the further advantage of introducing no inconvenient distinctions between “physical” and “mental” responses.

rhythm, indeed, that it catches our attention even when we do not want our attention distracted. Rhyme and alliteration are, of course, ways of emphasizing rhythm in language, through repetition of similar sounds at regular intervals. Political slogan-writers and advertisers therefore have a special fondness for rhyme and alliteration: “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,” “Keep Cool with Coolidge,” “Order from Horder,” “Better Buy Buick”— totally absurd slogans so far as informative value is concerned, but by virtue of their sound capable of setting up small rhythmic echoes in one’s head that make such phrases difficult to forget.

In addition to tone of voice and rhythm, another extremely important affective element in language is the aura of feelings, pleasant or unpleasant, that surrounds practically all words. It will be recalled that in Chapter 4, a distinction was made between denotations (or exten-sional meaning) pointing to things, and connotations (or intensional meaning) “ideas,” “notions,” “concepts,” and feelings suggested in the mind. These connotations can be divided into two kinds, the informative and the a§ective.

Informative Connotations

The informative connotations of a word are its socially agreed upon, “impersonal” meanings, insofar as meanings can be given at all by additional words. For exam-

pie, if we talk about a “pig,” we cannot readily give the extensional meaning (denotation) of the word unless there happens to be an actual pig around for us to point at; but we can give the informative connotations: “mammalian domestic quadruped of the kind generally raised by farmers to be made into pork, bacon, ham, lard . . .” —which are connotations upon which everybody can agree. Sometimes, however, the informative connotations of words used in everyday life differ so much from place to place and from individual to individual that a special substitute terminology with more fixed informative connotations has to be used when special accuracy is desired. The scientific names for plants and animals are an example of terminology with such carefully established informative connotations.

Affective Connotations

The affective connotations of a word, on the other hand, are the aura of personal feelings it arouses, as, for example, “pig”: “Ugh! Dirty, evil-smelling creatures, wallowing in filthy sties,” and so on. While there is no necessary agreement about these feelings—some people like pigs and others don’t—it is the existence of these feelings that enables us to use words, under certain circumstances, for their a^ective connotations alone, without regard to their informative connotations. That is to

say, when we are strongly moved, we express our feelings by uttering words with the affective connotations appropriate to our feelings, without paying any attention to the informative connotations they may have. We angrily call people “reptiles,” “wolves,” “old bears,” “skunks,” or lovingly call them “honey,” “sugar,” “duck,” and “apple dumpling.” Indeed, all verbal expressions of feeling make use to some extent of the affective connotations of words.

All words have, according to the uses to which they are put, some affective character. There are many words that exist more for their affective value than for their informative value; for example, we can refer to “that man” as “that gentleman,” “that individual,” “that person,” “that gent,” “that guy,” “that hombre,” “that bird,” or “that bozo”—and while the person referred to may be the same in all these cases, each of these terms reveals a difference in our feelings toward him. Dealers in antiques frequently write “Gyfte Shoppe” over the door, hoping that such a spelling carries, even if their merchandise does not, the flavor of antiquity. Affective connotations suggestive of England and Scotland are often sought in the choice of brand names for men’s suits and overcoats: “Glenmoor,” “Regent Park,” “Bond Street.” Sellers of perfume choose names for their products that suggest France—”Mon Desir,” “Indiscret,” “Evening in Paris”— and expensive brands always come in “flacons,” never in

bottles. Consider, too, the differences among the following expressions:

I have the honor to inform Your Excellency . . .

This is to advise you . . .

I should hke to tell you, sir . . .

I’m telling you, Mister . . .

Cheez, boss, git a load of dis . . .

The parallel columns below^ also illustrate how affective connotations can be changed while extensional meanings remain the same:

Finest quality filet mignon.

Cubs trounce Giants 5-3.

McCormick Bill steam-rollered through Senate.

Japanese divisions advance five miles.

French armies in rapid retreat!

The governor appeared to be gravely concerned and said that a statement would be issued in a few days after careful examination of the facts.

First-class piece of dead cow.

Score: Cubs 5, Giants 3.

Senate passes McCormick Bill over strong opposition.

Japs stopped cold after five-mile advance.

The retirement of the French forces to previously prepared positions in the rear was accomplished briskly and efficiently.

The governor was on the spot.

The story is told that during the Boer War, the Boers were described in the British press as “sneaking and

skulking behind rocks and bushes.” The British forces, when they finally learned from the Boers how to employ tactics suitable to veldt warfare, were described as “cleverly taking advantage of cover.”

A Note on Verbal Taboo

The affective connotations of some words create peculiar situations. In some circles of society, for example, it is “impolite” to speak of eating. A maid answering the telephone has to say, “Mr. Jones is at dinner,” and not, “Mr. Jones is eating dinner.” The extensional meaning is the same in both cases, but the latter form is regarded as having undesirable connotations. The same hesitation about referring too baldly to eating is shown in the economical use made of the French and Japanese words meaning “to eat,” manger and taberu; a similar delicacy exists in many other languages. Again, when creditors send bills, they practically never mention “money,” although that is what they are writing about. There are all sorts of circumlocutions: “We would appreciate your early attention to this matter.” “May we look forward to an immediate remittance .f*” “There is a balance in our favor which we are sure you would like to clear up.” Furthermore, we ask movie ushers and filling-station attendants where the “lounge” or “rest room” is, although we usually have no intention of lounging or resting; indeed.

it is impossible in polite society to state, without having to resort to a medical vocabulary, what a “rest room” is for. The word “dead” likewise is used as little as possible by many people, who substitute such expressions as “gone west,” “passed away,” “gone to his reward,” and “departed.” In every language there is a long list of such carefully avoided words whose affective connotations are so unpleasant or so undesirable that people cannot say them, even when they are needed.

Words having to do with physiology and sex—and words even vaguely suggesting physiological and sexual matters—have, especially in American culture, remarkable affective connotations. Ladies of the last century could not bring themselves to say “breast” or “leg”—not even of chicken—so that the terms “white meat” and “dark meat” were substituted. It was deemed inelegant to speak of “going to bed,” and “to retire” was used instead. Such verbal taboos are very numerous and complicated, especially on the radio today. Scientists and physicians asked to speak on the radio have been known to cancel their speeches in despair when they discovered that ordinary physiological terms, such as “stomach” and “bowels,” are forbidden on some stations. Indeed, there are some words, well known to all of us, whose affective connotations are so powerful that if they were printed here, even for the purposes of scientific analysis, this book would be excluded from all public schools and

libraries, and anyone placing a copy of it in the United States mails would be subject to Federal prosecution!

The stronger verbal taboos have, however, a genuine social value. When we are extremely angry and we feel the need of expressing our anger in violence, the uttering of these forbidden words provides us with a relatively harmless verbal substitute for going berserk and smashing furniture; that is, they act as a kind of safety valve in our moments of crisis.

Why some words should have such powerful affective connotations while others with the same informative connotations should not is difficult to explain fully. Some of our verbal taboos, especially the religious ones, obviously originate in our earlier belief in word-magic; the names of gods, for example, were often regarded as too holy to be spoken. But all taboos cannot be explained in terms of word-magic. According to some psychologists, our verbal taboos on sex and physiology are probably due to the fact that we all have certain feelings of which we are so ashamed that we do not like to admit even to ourselves that we have them. We therefore resent words which remind us of those feelings, and get angry at the utterer of such words. Such an explanation would confirm the fairly common observation that those fanatics who object most strenuously to “dirty” books and plays do so not because their minds are especially pure, but because they are especially morbid.

Everyday Uses of Language

The language of everyday life, then, differs from “reports” such as those discussed in Chapter 3. As in reports, we have to be accurate in choosing v^ords that have the informative connotations we want; otherwise the reader or hearer will not know what we are talking about. But in addition, we have to give those words the affective connotations we want in order that he will be interested or moved by what we are saying and feel towards things the way we do. This double task confronts us in almost all ordinary conversation, oratory, persuasive writing, and literature. Much of this task, however, is performed intuitively; without being aware of it, we choose the tone of voice, the rhythms, and the affective connotations appropriate to our utterance. Over the informative connotations of our utterances we exercise somewhat more conscious control. Improvement in our ability to understand language, as well as in our ability to use it, depends, therefore, not only upon sharpening our sense for the informative connotations of words, but also upon the sharpening of our intuitive perceptions.

The following, finally, are some of the things that can happen in any given speech event:

I. The informative connotations may be inadequate or misleading, but the affective connotations may be suffi-

ciently well directed so that we are able to interpret correctly. For example, when someone says, “Imagine who I saw today! Old What’s-his-name—oh, you know who I mean—^Whoosis, that old buzzard that lives on, oh— what’s the name of that street!” there are means, certainly not clearly informative, by which we manage to understand who is being referred to.

2. The informative connotations may be correct enough and the extensional meanings clear, but the affective connotations may be inappropriate, misleading, or ludicrous. This happens frequently when people try to write elegantly: “Jim ate so many bags of Arachis hypogaea, commonly known as peanuts, at the ball game today that he was unable to do justice to his evening repast.”

3. Both informative and affective connotations may “sound all right,” but there may be no “territory” corresponding to the “map.” For example: “He lived for many years in the beautiful hill country just south of Chicago.” There is no hill country just south of Chicago.

4. Both informative and affective connotations may be used consciously to create “maps” of “territories” that do not exist. There are many reasons why we should wish on occasion to do so. Of these, only two need be mentioned now. First, we may wish to give pleasure:

Yet mark’d I where the bolt of Cupid fell:

It fell upon a little western flower,

Before milk-white, now purple with love’s wound,

And maidens call it Love-in-idleness.

Fetch me that flower; the herb I show’d thee once:

The juice of it on sleeping eyelids laid

Will make or man or woman madly dote

Upon the next live creature that it sees.

Midsummer Night’s Dream

A second reason is to enable us to plan for the future. For example, we can say, “Let us suppose there is a bridge at the foot of this street; then the heavy traffic on High Street would be partly diverted over the new bridge; shopping would be less concentrated on High Street. . . .” Having visualized the condition that would result, we can recommend or oppose the bridge according to whether or not we like the probable results. The relationship of present words to future events is a subject we must leave for the next chapter.


I. The relative absence of information and the deluge of affective connotations in advertising is notorious. Nev-ertheless, it is revealing to analyze closely specimens like the following, separating informative and affective connotations into two parallel columns for contrast:

You’ll enjoy different tomato juice made from aristocrat tomatoes.

A new kind of shirt has been born! A shirt as advanced in concept and performance as today’s speediest, most luxurious


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