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Monday, January 3, 2011

A Word's Meaning: Well Intentioned or Intentionally Emotional?

Words are the symbols that we assign to things so that we have a basis for shared meaning when we communicate, or at least attempt to do so. While S.I. Hayakawa reminded us that  "The word is not the thing," long ago  (Language in Thought and Action, page 28), many speakers and writers tend to forget this basic fact of semantics. 

At the very fundamental  level, and when we are not speaking or writing in metaphor or using symbolism, there seems to be agreement as to a word’s meaning:  street, cat, dog, horse, cow, house, garden.

It’s the abstract concepts that, when used, start to impede our communication.  In fact, some words become so emotionally loaded that, instead of a rational response from the listener or reader to an entire paragraph or essay, there is a reaction to just one word that hits a hot spot somewhere inside the brain.  Hope of communicating at this point fades into the deep abyss between the message’s sender and receiver. 

Words may shift in meaning over time and within different subcultures in the same language group or change with the political winds of any given era.  According to the authors of An Introduction to Language, meanings change over time in three ways:  it may become broader, it may become more narrower, or it may shift (Fromkin/Rodman, page 207).  Today, these words are examples of those that carry emotional baggage beyond the dictionary definition:

government funded
state’s rights

Speech or writing used purposefully to cause an emotional response has become an art form employed by advertisers, columnists, and politicians (and radio talk show hosts).  Now, however, I hear self-proclaimed journalists use emotionally loaded terms, supposedly without thinking (if I am to give them the benefit of the doubt).  Whether intentional or not, word use by journalists should be as objective as possible and hold up to scrutiny.  Instead, broadcast journalism becomes just another sound bite and no one cares if it stings.

For example, I have paid into the social security system all of my adult working life.  Most recently I heard the retirement system called an "entitlement" program by someone assuming the role of a journalist on cable news (CNN). The interviewer used this emotionally loaded term instead of calling it what it is:  a tax on payroll matched by employers to be set aside for the employee’s retirement.  Brevity in language does not always equal correct language. Definition of entitle:  to give (a person or thing) the right to receive, demand, to do something.  Does this definition imply that the person has not worked to receive the thing in question?  

A sound bite literally goes by so quickly that it is difficult to capture, let alone analyze. I am often left with questions.  Did I hear correctly?  Did I misinterpret the intended meaning?  What was the intention?  Did the journalist speak knowingly or in error? Or are certain words used as descriptors in certain interviews and not in others?

If I conclude that it is all just a matter of semantics, that doesn't solve the problem of shared meaning; it only begins to point out  the ongoing dilemma.  

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