Sometimes it’s hard for me to know what people will be interested in. Nonetheless, I’ll embark on this post anyway, and its about words.

I’m taking a class right now called the metaphysics of language which is an inflated way of trying to look into what’s going on when we talk to each other. I’m a very verbal person and so I naturally think that language is a wonderful toy that we’re lucky enough to play with during our lifetimes and to think about it in terms of just communication would miss the fact that speaking language is like swimming. When you can speak a language you can move through ideas and personalities with graceful ease.

Words are a big part of language but it turns out that it’s not so easy to say what is and is not a word. What on earth could this mean? Well, take a language like Turkish which is heavily inflected, meaning that words can changed up a lot before they can fit into a sentence properly. For English, we don’t have to change words too much. If the action happened in the past though, we have to add ‘d’ or ‘ed’ to indicate that fact. No big deal. But back to Turkish, which constructs a lot of words on the fly from small pieces that do not have meaning independently (in English its meaningless to ask “what does ‘-ing’ mean?.” But linguists, trying to be precise and generally failing, say that such stems and affixes are words because they must be stored in our lexicon independently.

The lexicon is the name of all the mental entries we have in a language. ‘Eat’ would appear as would ‘desk,’ but there are other things in there as well like “-d” which would be appear next to an entry that would read “attach this to verbs to make them past tense.” But more interestingly is that there would be things stored as single units in the lexicon that are not single words. Take “kick the bucket.” This is an idiom, and you cannot deduce the meaning of this word from ‘kick’ and ‘the’ and ‘bucket.’ Instead you must have a separate entry in your mental dictionary for “kick the bucket,” meaning that linguists count many things as words that we wouldn’t normally think count as words.

In fact, there are many notions of word that linguists use. One is the lexical notion of a word, which I just explained as something stored in long term memory. There is also the phonological notion of a word, which is a unit of sound that gets said at one time and interpreted at one time. Here, a word could be “a man” which, as you can see if you pronounce it to yourself, is said so quickly that it sounds like “aman.” As a unit of sound, this is one word.

There are also english words that have a sound but no meaning. What does the “it” in “It is raining” mean? There are other such “defective” words in English.

Anyway, what’s more interesting to me though is the way words can get traded around, built up, and worn down, in the social world. We say things like “his words are hollow” or that a word has “lost it’s meaning.” How does this happen. Well one way to get at the idea would be to think about cliches. When they are first coined, they have a powerful meaning because they express a thought in a novel way that nonetheless people can instantly understand in a vivid way. Often writers (Shakespeare introduced a lot of words and phrases that are now cliche though their original power is still evident) act as engineers of the language, revitalizing it by adding new expressive materials to it.

Over time though, people wear down these expressive materials just like driving a car wears down its parts. So that in time expressions like “the light at the end of the tunnel,” “the check is in the mail,” and “raining cats and dogs” lack the ability to convey real thoughts. Euphemisms are closely related. “Mistakes were made” is the use of the passive voice to cloak the real thought (that some people screwed up badly) in a kind of barely communicative haze.

I was talking with a friend the other night, and he was really down on cliches. He explained them as moments in which we don’t think, in which we abdicate our role as a speaker and become a voicebox or a vessel for nearly meaningless societal themes. We’re just regurgitating the corpses of dead expressions.

There is a paradox though in my overly dramatic characterization, which is that if cliches are so unthinking, then why can they communicate things so well sometimes? My dad loves cliches (idioms really) and he uses them freely to communicate ideas to clients, and as far as I can tell, they love him for it. When asked by a judge about the motion of an opponent, my dad said “Well, with that response Mr. X is just pissing on my head and telling me it’s raining.” Now with this idiom, it is, in a way, hard to understand what is even meant, but on another level, its very clear what is being communicated, which is that someone is trying to pull off an extremely transparent deception. Also try one of my favorites: “you made your bed now lie in it.” Huh? If you make your bed (I never have in my entire life) then you go out into the day to conduct your business. You don’t make a bed to get in it.  “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.” What?

Also, my friend notes that using cliches is unthinking, but isn’t ALL language unthinking? When you’re in a conversation, you never PLAN what you’re going to say, you just say it.

Long story short, there is something going on with cliches and idioms that’s pretty interesting. On the one hand, they are dead letters (literally); husks of imaginative meaning that are still being recycled in the culture. On the other hand, they are moments when we come closest to thinking someone else’s exact same thoughts. Two parties to a known cliche understand each other almost telepathically (I’m exaggerating to make the point) and so they can be very useful in explaining things. At the same time, a cliche is kind of insulting to the other person because you have decided not to try and come up with a challenging new expression for their benefit. Instead, you just use the easiest tool at your disposal.

Still, I think that cliches and idioms are close to humor, which I talk about all the time on this site. I won’t bore people with more talk about this, but notice how when we tell a joke and the other person laughs, the teller and hearer are connected in a special, beyond-conceptual way. They both “get it.” Maybe cliches are kind of like jokes that are no longer funny. That’s not quite right, but cliches connect us so intimately but not really with anything good. Jokes on the other hand inspire happiness.

Pop songs are another GREAT example. They strike a chord (in a crude way no doubt) with a wide group of people, but they die so quickly. The culture seizes on them so rapaciously that they are drained of their expressive power almost immediately. You make me feel like I’m living a….teen…age…dream (sorry but I hear this song EVERY DAY in the Tufts weight room right now). Those words are already dying and becoming more of an instinct or a linguistic tic.


2 Responses to “Words”

  1. 1 JT
    October 2, 2010 at 6:31 pm

    distinguish between buzzwords (or pop songs) and cliches that stay with us seemingly no matter what—that’s how they become cliches after all. Cliches often come in the form of metaphors; pursue this for a moment. Metaphors are words or phrases used to express the meaning of another set of (generally more literal) words or phrases. Metaphors indicate an abstract ability to perceive similarities within differing situations; ability to connect disparate patterns. Cliches are metaphors (or something like metaphors) whose patterns are no longer all that disparate. It’s a metaphor that’s been learned (you could say over-learned). It hasn’t lost its “meaning.” Just because we use 2+2 or “the floor is wet” doesn’t mean it’s not useful. That said there’s a lot that could be unpacked from 2+2 or “the light at the end of the tunnel” but we have finite amounts of time and just about any possible sentence can have incredibly deep meanings if you dig.

    I think why people are so hard on cliches is because they have a gut expectation that metaphors ought to be artistic rather than prosaic. For that, I would point to metaphors that become so ingrained that we don’t even call them cliches… a lot of expletives for example, or “dough” or “bucks.”

    hmmm though I think I’m missing something here…

    • 2 questionbeggar
      October 2, 2010 at 7:35 pm

      Yea this is right. I used meaning to describe a kind-of paradox between cliches which lose their meaning but at the same time obviously keep them. Strictly speaking though, they keep their meaning fine, which is why we keep using them. The pop song example was more about trying to get at what I mean by “lose their meaning” which I guess should have been clarified to mean “significance” and not communicative ability. Pop songs lose their significance very quickly as they are circulated in the culture so voraciously. Cliches arguably gain communicative power as they lose their significance. They become so communicative, expected, and habituated that they cease to challenge us at all. Maybe an analogy would be a tautology. All apples are apples. This is so transparently true that its uninteresting and useless to us.

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