What Do Words Mean?

What’s the main purpose of language?  To communicate, right?  But how can we expect to communicate with one another when we’re burdened with the imprecision of certain words?  I’m not thinking about the concrete words whose meaning we can all agree on here (such as, for example, “concrete”), but the abstract terms that get thrown around like so many paper airplanes, threatening to poke people’s eyes out.

For instance, love.  When is it safe to tell someone you love her or him?  Why does it have to sound so corny?  And how come so many people say it just so person they’re talking to will say it to them (sorry about the singular/plural conundrum that sentence presents)?

My wife and I tell each other we love each other sometimes, but we don’t always love each other.  She’s not averse to telling me she hates me when the mood is right.  I harbor feelings of hatred for her at times, but I try not to verbalize them, as I’m afraid I might never stop and have to be carted off to a small padded room somewhere and be forced to listen to “The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round” for the rest of my life.

Also, i think she’s manic-depressive.  I’m a depressive maniac, so we’re perfectly compatible.

Another word that annoys me is freedom.  As Janis Joplin said, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”  Does freedom even exist, or is it like perfection, a concept we’ve created just to drive ourselves crazy?  Freedom from want is achievable (though freedom from wants is much harder to achieve).  Freedom to do what you want is much harder, because of the sense of duty towards others.  If that’s your goal, you’re free to pursue it.

Happiness is another irritating collection of syllables.  It especially annoys me when my wife asks me if I’m happy.  “Well, I was until you asked me.  Now that I’m thinking about it again, no, I’m not.”  The word “happy” has been reduced by overuse to cliche status.  Happy Birthday.  Happy New Year.  These imperatives put a lot of pressure on people to feel better than they might be ready to.  Merry Christmas.  When was the last time you felt merry?  Must have been when you had a bottle of sherry.

Politicians love to dwell in abstraction, throwing around words like freedom, liberty, justice, and democracy like so much confetti to perform their snow jobs with.  Too many of their speechwriters work from the same playbook.  Computer jargon with its downloads and megabytes and voyages into cyberspace is likewise plagued with vagueness.  Many doctors specialize in polysyllabic Latin phrases unknown to laymen, while lawyers strain the laws of grammar and advertisers and military advisers sprinkle their speech with a fusillade of euphemisms.

And yet, there are a few words that convey or express generalities that I am fond of.  Here are a few of my favorite abstract nouns:

Life.  It says it all, doesn’t it?  (Except the part about death, another favorite.  Together these two concepts corner the market on experience, at least as far as I know.)

Change.  This word has been overused by a lot of politicians, including Borracho Obama.  Nevertheless, it’s what life’s all about (as is death).

Present.  The word has three distinct meanings:  “here,” “now,” and “gift.”  It’s the only time that exists, and since it’s always moving and changing, it never lasts; so, like the past and the future,the present doesn’t really exist either (no hard feelings).  All the same, there’s no time like the present, and there’s no place like home (thank God).

Time.  The most valuable entity in the world, and the one I take the most for granted, even though it’s always running out.

Space.  What I need more of.  Hmmm, how to talk to my wife about this without having to have a frying pan surgically removed from my skull?

Please add the word “God” to the list of annoying words.  As eighties new wave band XTC would say, people “can’t make opinions meet about God.”

What does God mean to you?  For me, God is a combination of nature, art, love, and beer.

And with that in mind, may God bless you, and may you bless God (life, love, happiness, freedom–it’s all a two-way street, a yin-and yang that spins like a boomerang).

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One thought on “What Do Words Mean?

  1. Semantics, seriously. I took a class last year on Semantics, and let me tell you, meaning is complicated. The prof would frequently tell us “I don’t even know if what I’m telling you is true – no one really knows what meaning is. We could all be totally wrong”.

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