Until I was about 23 I never thought about the “meaning” of words. I spoke and I listened to words, but I didn’t assess all of the nuances that they can contain. It was a simpler time (or so it seemed to me during the Great Depression and World War II) and people were simpler. People generally said what they meant unambiguously, and you understood them at that level. When the ads said that “Lucky Strike’s green” (cigarettes) “went to war,” you knew that was the reason that the tin foil covering the cigarettes and the green color on the package were gone. Although their ads said that smoking was part of a good life you never suspected that was a goddamned lie. Simpler times.
About that time I picked up a little booklet by a professor in the university named S.I. Hayakawa entitled “Language in Thought and Action.” I suddenly learned that words were no longer just to read, or speak, or be listened to, but that they could carry multiple meanings depending on the context, the speaker or writer’s intent, etc. There is a big difference between the words Heroin and Heroine. One can become paranoid over insights like that, but in today’s world a healthy paranoia about the real meaning of words and symbols is mandatory if one wishes to keep a bit of sanity in a world gone mad with lies.
What I’m talking about is “semantics.” Definition: The study or science of meaning in language. The study of relationships between signs and symbols and what they represent. The meaning or the interpretation of a word, sentence, or other language form.
Unfortunately in our society being curious about words and meaning is looked at as being almost un-American or, at least, unsocial in discourse. If you are curious about how, what, or why things happen in our country you are considered out of the mainstream. Our schools generally do not teach the young in secondary or advanced education to look skeptically at what they read or hear. Too many citizens, very early in life, have an established ideology that limits their curiosity about anything that lies outside of that ideology.
“Teaching for the test” in secondary schools, and getting an education solely to get a job, has made it difficult for citizens to look behind words and symbols. This opens the door for corporations, media, and politicians to inundate them daily with messages that are outright lies or at least grossly misleading. They use words and symbols to manipulate our attitudes toward what is good for them, not us.
I wish that Hayakawa’s* little book on general semantics would be part of every high school’s curriculum and in every freshman college English class, but for now curiosity about words and their meaning is dormant in America. As a result, the deeply cynical manipulation of language remains unchallenged in public discourse. But corruption of public discourse is not just a matter of semantics: it’s a matter of life or death in a democracy allegedly (but no longer) built on the informed consent of the people.
*Unfortunately, Hayakawa became an unreconstructed reactionary later in life as the notorious President of San Francisco State University during the bitter student strike in 1968-69, and later as a Republican U.S. Senator from California. So an understanding of semantics does not necessarily lead to straight talk and a progressive world view. It’s too bad, but it can still help us understand how we are being manipulated.