‘A word can only mean something, not because of what it is, but because of what it is not’.
As soon as this sentence streamed out of Adrian Miles’ mouth in this week’s symposium I was intrigued. I mean, I’ve gotten used to over-analysing every concept to the endth degree in this subject, but even still, the idea that words do not literally have meaning attached to them amazes me. Reading a word and decoding its meaning comes so easily to all of us, even now as I’m typing this sentence, I am essentially encoding meaning into these words, placing letters (coded markings) into a specific order so that someone else can come along and understand what I was thinking in the minute just gone by.
Adrian used the word ‘boy’ as an example to illustrate his point. The only reason I can draw meaning from this word, whether typed or spoken, is because it looks or sounds different from what it is not – it isn’t soy, it isn’t coy, it isn’t joy. Thus the reason ‘boy’ means a male child or youth, is through its contrast to other words. I suppose this explains that action of abstracting a word for yourself; you know when you think about a word really hard, repeating it over and over again in your head until it doesn’t make sense to you any more, it just becomes a jumble of sounds or a pattern of letters? The only way to think about that word again and make it make sense to you, is either by trying to completely forget about it or by putting it in a sentence, changing the context it’s in and essentially comparing and contrasting it to other words.
Of course the topics of ‘meaning’ and in turn ‘intention’ also stem from this idea…but that’s for another day!