The Humanity Of Words - online book

A Primer Of Semantics

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54                  THE HUMANITY OF WORDS
19. The public life of words
Even though understanding between people is never complete, the public life of words is extensive. If this were not so, our efforts to communicate would be greatly obstructed.
At this point,8 we are interested in the public life of words in connection with Ogden's and Richards' "triangle" of meaning.
The meaning of a single isolated symbol is almost impossible to get at, Ogden and Richards point out. This is especially so when the word refers to a complex thing, situation, event, etc. Words such as 'labor" "education," "democracy," "industry," "politics," etc., are like shorthand symbols for vast moving complexes of people and things. But in the economy necessary to the communication process, we must use these words.
What can we do to minimize the private life of such words and maximize their utility for purposes of communication? The answer is simple but effective:
Say "labor" when!
Say "labor" where!
Say "labor" in connection with whom!
Say "labor" in connection with what!
I know what you're thinking. "Labor" and "education" and "democracy" and "industry" and "society" and "politics," etc., are big (abstract) words that cover a lot of ground. And you are right, of course. But let's take a simple word like "chair." Unless we use more words, it is impossible to know what in the world the word refers to.
As you read the word "chair," what goes on inside your head?
8 See Part Three below, for Korzybski's discussion of words as abstractions.