“Words have no meaning.”
Those words were tossed at me by one of my English professors while attending U.C. Berkeley. Now, it’s been many years since college and unfortunately I don’t remember the Prof’s name that told us that, but what a powerful lesson.
What do I mean words have no meaning — of course they do? It’s an illusion my friend. Most of us have never differentiated the word (spoken or written) with its meaning — but the subtle difference is there. Words have no meaning as they are mere containers for meaning. Just as a can of corn is not corn, but a container for corn. On the can there is a picture of corn and when we look at that can, we all have an agreed-upon notion of what it contains — of what it means.
So this analogy closely explains words. The combination of a series of letters, forming a particular word, have within a language, an agreed-upon meaning. The word itself is therefore just a container for that meaning. Why is this important?
It is important to understand this subtle difference because believing that a particular word only has the meaning as defined in your head — placed there by your education and experiences — may not be the exact meaning as the person with whom you are speaking. When the person you are communicating with uses a particular word in an attempt to pass meaning to you, and your meanings differ, then communication fails, possibly leading to misunderstandings and conflict.
One word can do this you ask? Maybe. But more likely a series of words, sentences, paragraphs, etc., with subtle meaning differences surely can. And when this failure to pass meaning from one to another happens, usually the recipient has the issue — be it confusion, anger, or something else. But whose fault is it that meaning is not passed correctly? Is it the speaker/writer who is certain that a word means one thing, or the recipient who knows the word means something else?
The point I’m trying to make here is that in communication, the best tool we have to pass “meaning” between each other is language (without getting existential here), but that tool is not perfect. So when communicating, allow the sender of meaning to verify that meaning is transferred properly. When listening, and before assuming a particular meaning, don’t hesitate to ask for confirmation from the speaker. Saying “so I hear you saying this…” is perfectly acceptable and desirable before taking something the wrong way. Of course, when asking for confirmation, you really must allow the other person the opportunity to say “no, I meant this instead….”