The Humanity Of Words - online book

A Primer Of Semantics

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Ogden and Richards coined the term "referent," and it has stood the test of the years. You will find it in very recent semantic literature. Obviously, the word fills a need. It is a short cut for whatever it is that the word refers to out there in the world. It is a word that is used to refer to anything outside the skinan object, a person, an event, a situation, etc.
When you use the word "chair," that actual thing you are sitting on is a possible referent. The word is not, of course, the thing.13 The symbol is not the referent. (Any fool knows that he can't eat the word "steak.")
When we use symbols, we refer to the referent. When we read or hear words, we try to discover the referent out there in the world. In every communication process, regardless of the number of people involved, the stabilizing operation is to find the referent. What is it? Where is it? When is it? Who is it?
Even very young children can be taught the importance of finding the referent. With this in mind, one mother (whom the children call "Miss Sh'Ann") teaches her third-grade Brownies to play "Find the Referent!" And to reinforce this procedure, she teaches them, also, to play a game called "Facts and Opinions."14
In "Find the Referent!" the trick is, of course, to be the first to find the referent. The referent is something in the room. The Brownies are not allowed to speak. Miss Sh'Ann explains that she will use many words that do not have referents because they describe only how she feels about things. These words will not be clues, because the
13 See Section 26 below, for more about "the word is not the thing."
14 Described in Part Four below in connection with Morris's uses of language.