How Words Find Their Meaning

A Tissue is not Despair

Have you ever seen something or felt something and said to yourself “Dang, I wish there was a word for that?” The truth is that the word to describe whatever it is you want to name does exist, just not in your language.

A few months ago I purchased the most precious book that a foreign language nerd could ever find, “Lost In Translation” by Ella Francis Sanders. The concept behind this book is genius; a collection of words from around the world that don’t exist in English. This book contains everything from szimpatikus which is a hungarian adjective used to describe the feeling you get when you first meet someone and you can just feel that they are a good person, to a Malay word, pisanzapra, which gives a name to the amount of time it takes to eat a banana.

Flipping through the pages of this illustrated work of art, I realized that there are so many things that I see or feel everyday that I’ve never been able to name. This got me wondering, how does a word find its meaning?

We’ve all wondered who got to decide that a dog was a dog and a cat was a cat, but there are some words that couldn’t have been named by simply pointing at an animal and saying “I hereby declare you, animal that goes woof, a dog.” Take, for example, a word like happiness. This is such a common word that we use all the time, however the word has thousands of different meanings for different people. Sure, dictionary.com has defined happiness as “the state of being happy,” but who defined “happy,” or better yet, who decided that the happiness was a positive feeling?

From what I can tell, a word goes through several stages before it becomes integrated in our daily speech. First, someone has to identify a specific object, feeling, or concept and give it a title. Next, they give the word an definition; an outline for what can be classified as this word. Then the word is send out into the world where society puts it into context, thereby developing the word’s connotation through a cultural lens. At this point, the word may have been translated to another language or been spread across continents where more and more cultures decide their own meaning for that particular thing that guy over in some other country wanted to define.

I think the most fascinating thing about this entire process is that it’s really like one continuous game of intercontinental telephone: each time the word is used, the meaning is warped just a little bit.

Sometimes I wonder how we would feel about certain things if the telephone wire had been wound a little bit differently. What if the first person to define sadness didn’t think that it was such a bad thing? What if that person thought that sadness was something to celebrate, or that tears made eyes more beautiful? Or what if nobody ever gave sadness a name? Just because a feeling doesn’t have a name, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, but without a name, we couldn’t develop connotation. If sadness wasn’t classified as a negative emotion, or laughter was thought of to be painful or annoying, how would our lives be changed?

Words are capable of doing damage and creating beauty because we’ve decided that they can. Language was built by humans to express ourselves and our thoughts to others through oral communication, grammar gave that communication guidelines, while cultural context built connotations to further develop the meanings behind each phrase we spoke. Language is fluid and alive and we have the ability to manipulate it; to mold it whichever way we choose. We can never go back in time and change the path of the telephone, but we can push it it a new direction by changing the meanings we associate with certain words.

Beauty doesn’t have to mean size 2 Victoria’s Secret models with flawless skin and perfect hair. A decade or so from now our generation will be in charge of passing on our language to our children, and when we do, we can teach them that beauty is a universal term used to describe a positive feeling one receives when looking at themselves or another person. If that’s the case, we all become beautiful simply by feeling happy when we look in the mirror. Next time somebody asks what equality means, we can express the term as mutual acceptance and shared opportunity for all people.

Let’s not further clarify words with exceptions and categorizations. Treat language as a tool and build whatever you want and make it mean whatever you wish; build yourself a new reality out of letters bound with feeling.

Mandy Signature