January 23, 2024
This year will be a blizzard of words. Words that stand in for people, ideas, faiths, ideologies, and more will swirl around us, sometimes making it hard to see what we’re talking about. There will be dog whistles, accusations, willful misrepresentations of common understandings, and honest attempts at explanation and understanding.
Words are one of the ways in which we assert order over a chaotic world. When we see an object, meet a person or hear an idea, we assign it a word: table, professor, liberal, and so on. We then often treat the thing (or person or idea) as if it were the word. The word becomes the thing, and the thing becomes the word.
Saussure (and many others) have pointed out the connection between words and things is arbitrary. As long as enough people know what we’re talking about, the word “means” something. In this view, meaning is in communities or people, not in words or things. No word “really means” anything outside of how a group of people use or understand it. The rectangular thing at which you’re sitting to eat lunch is no more a table than it is a mesa, mahaia or artichoke. If everyone in a room agrees that the big rectangular thing at which everyone is sitting and having lunch is a table, then it’s a table.
Words need to both include and exclude to do their job of creating order. Language, to return to Saussure (and others) has a negative function: language tells us what something is in part by telling us what it is not. We use “table” to differentiate it from a chair, sofa or artichoke. Among the tables, we rely on further differences - the table at which we eat, not the temporary one with folding legs which we set up to play cards. The community also needs to know that a table at which you sit is different from a table of contents or a periodic table. A table is in part because it is not a chair or desk, a dining room table is not a picnic table.
Words draw attention to the parts of an object we think matter most, and therefore away from other parts. The words we use narrow our focus, they say ‘this feature of this thing matters, you can ignore the rest for now.’ As the 20th Century American rhetorical scholar Kenneth Burke (and many others) noted, all descriptions are necessarily selections, reflections and deflections of reality. By calling the thing at which you’re sitting and eating a table, you’re drawing attention to one of its attributes: tables are where you sit and do stuff. Calling it a table means it’s not art, commerce, former natural resources or future garbage. By saying “table” you are not only referring to a specific object, you are also indicating what about that object matters - what about that object doesn’t matter or isn’t worth thinking about at the moment. You’re saying “of all the things in the room, that thing matters; further what matters about that thing is its accepted use as a place to eat lunch but not the fact that it was once a tree or that someone named Susan loaded it onto a truck.”
A last point about language I want to highlight here is the mental image you have in your head of tables. We can all more or less agree on what the thing in the room you’re pointing to is, or where we should put our lunch. But the specific table - the ideal or real table - you have in your head is different from mine. Maybe for you tables are big, or made of wood, or look like one in your cousin’s house. You know there are other tables, and by this point you’ve thought way more about tables than you ever wanted to. When someone says “table” you have a mental image of a thing (an image which may be different than it was about 650 or so words ago, and may change again by the end of this essay). You then go with that image unless someone pokes you to do differently.
It would be difficult to get on with our day without this focusing. We could spend an entire morning just explaining the thing on which we put our glasses before falling asleep. Saying “bedside table” makes getting out of bed possible. Narrowing is necessary.
Just as we use language to navigate our world, language also uses us. It says “this is a table because it has these attributes and you should therefore put things on it that you are using, like a plate or a laptop or a puzzle, don’t worry about what it’s made of or who carried it from the truck to this room.” We decide the word that best describes the thing in the moment, load all of the relevant attributes about the thing into that word, and then treat the word as if it were the thing in its entirety.
One way to tell tables apart is by calling them a “kids’ table” and “adults’ table.” Many big family gatherings put all the children at one table, where they can create whatever mayhem they want, they use paper plates, and so on. The grown ups then sit at a nicer table, with real plates (as if paper plates were imaginary, “real” is an interesting word) and presumably less mayhem and fun. What matters here isn't the word “table” but rather the words “kids’” and “adults’.” It’s the attributes of the people that get our attention. Sometimes adults, defined as those over 18, love to sit at the kids’ table because kids are loud and silly and fun - which means adults are quiet, serious and dull. Similarly, those younger than 18 can be invited to the adults’ table if they are serious enough. We use the logic of naming stuff to describe people. We apply a label and an order to what are incredibly complicated human beings.
Language uses us in telling us what those people are like - “welcome to dinner, sorry there’s no room at the big table, you’ll have to sit with them at the kids’ table.” You are one of those, therefore you probably behave in these sorts of ways, and therefore belong over there with them. When you hear “kids'' or “adults'' you automatically plug in all sorts of things about beliefs, behaviors, what they enjoy doing, and so on. If you sit at the kids’ table, you’re silly because that’s what the word says you should be. Just as we make assumptions when we hear the word “table,” we make assumptions when we hear the word “kid.” We use language to put people into groups, and language tells us who those groups and people are. We then often treat the people as if they were the word we use to describe them.
You can point to a table, or even a person, but you can’t point to a concept. As the late Murray Edelman (and many others) noted, “political language is political reality.” A table is a collection of matter shaped in a form. A political label is a collection of ideas and identities shaped into a word. In Politics and the English Language, George Orwell complained that political language “is designed…to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” But it cannot do otherwise. Unlike the round thing in front of me in my office with the wooden top and metal base, “conservatism” does not exist in the world absent my sense of it and use of the term. When I go home for the weekend, as far as I know the thing I call “table” in my office will remain. There is a physicalness in the world to the table, regardless of what I call it (or whether or not I call it anything). That is not the case with ideas or ideologies. Politics, by definition, is entirely pure wind.
There is nothing inherently “socialism” about socialism, just as there’s nothing inherently “table” about a table. Both could be artichokes or scooters. “Socialism” (and capitalism, conservative, radical, liberal, fascist, anarchist, etc.) is a word we attach to a concept. We see a collection of ideas, group them together, and call the bundle “socialism” (or capitalism, etc.). We don’t include every idea, or every nuance of every idea. We include and exclude, highlight and hide. We then treat the term like the thing - the ideas become the word, and the word becomes the ideas.
We also assign words to other people and to ourselves. Some of those words carry more weight than others - for example conservative, liberal, socialist, capitalist, fascist, anarchist, and so on. These labels help, and they are inevitable. But they are wildly incomplete and we can disagree mightly about them. Most of have said “that’s not what capitalism/socialism/feminism/etcism really means,” as if there a physical object out there, like a table, to which everyone could point. Bumping your shin on a coffee table can hurt like crazy bumping your shin on socialism hurts a lot less.
You know everyone is more than a simple label and that not everything in the label might apply to them, just as you know a table is more than a thing your lunch is sitting on. For the sake of expediency you pick a label and more or less run with it unless poked otherwise.
When we use a word to define a person or idea we take incredible complexity and boil it down to eight or ten letters. We assume everyone around us shares more or less the same understanding of those letters that we do. But as with tables, our images of what an idea or person is varies. The agreed upon meeting can be close, but is always not quite. Our meanings are necessarily incomplete and always changing. For some, meaning is always about difference and always deferred.
Unless we pay attention, we miss this important nuance. We might only see our definition of the word. And, unless we’re paying attention, we might respond to the entire person as if all that they are is poured into our understanding of that sequence of letters.
We also use language to make sense of ourselves. We call ourselves things, you say “I am” and therefore “I am not.” You have a given name, maybe a name you like to be called, and you may hate nicknames or get ticked off when people misspell your name. You have titles on which you may insist or about which you might not care. Many of you lead with your preferred pronouns, or provide pronunciation guides for your name. You say “Of all of the things about me, I need you to know these things first; these words matter because they capture parts of me that matter to me and therefore I need them to matter to you.” Your words about you, like my words about me, highlight and hide. They draw attention to, and away from.
You study language - how to put words together, how to take them apart, how to use them to tell a story or make a case. Your professors use language to teach you about words. This language - these words, images, sounds, and the rest of the symbolic systems through which we swim - are tools we use to make sense of our world. The language also uses us. It helps remind us who we are, and helps define how we interact with the world, and the people and ideas that inhabit it.
A challenge we all face is to pay attention to how we use language and how language uses us. We need to ensure that as we include and exclude, focus and define, make the sense we need to make to get on with our day, that we don’t mistake our words for all they stand in for. We must always remember that there is more that is unsaid and always more to say. When you assign a word to a person, idea, or even furniture, think about what you are leaving in and leaving out. What assumptions are you making? What meaning about an entire person, idea or object, are you pouring into a set of squiggles we decided are letters that make up what we decided are words?
We also need to pay attention to how we use words to define ourselves. What are we saying about ourselves, to ourselves, when we say we’re something? How are we letting those words determine our views or actions? Our words about ourselves, to ourselves, matters. It’s worth considering why and how.
Play with the words you assign things, ideas and people. Marcel Duchamp turned the art world on its head by asking what the word “art” meant. What if your classrooms were art installations? What else can you call a collection of ideas to see it differently? Imagine a different word for groups with whom you agree or disagree and see if the word helps you think differently. Pick a different attribute and call the group (or person, or thing) that - what changes? What stays the same? What happens when you play with the words you call yourself?
We live in a world of objects and people, but we operate in a world of words. How we use those words, and how those words use us, is something worth paying attention to. We make those words and those words then make us and make our world. Make those words creatively, deliberately and thoughtfully. They’re all we have.