HERBERT E. DOUGLASS, Instructor, Department of Religion, Pacific Union College

Why Study Words?

Someone has well said that you and I, and all the rest of humanity, live on our own little island and spend our life shouting at each other across the sea of misunderstanding. We see parents misunderstood by their children, pastors preaching to dwin­dling congregations, and statesmen misrep­resented by countrymen. Hearts are torn and life loses its beauty and zest. Lifelong friendships unravel. Noble dreams die a-borning. Just islands in a vast sea of mis­understanding—tear-filled islands, per­plexed islands.

Misunderstanding is a tragic result of failure in communication. We see a continual interchange of communication, but somewhere in the process the intent and meaning is short-circuited. Stuart Chase says it bluntly, "Failure of mental com­munication is painfully in evidence nearly everywhere we choose to look."

We live in a world of words. Constantly we are bombarded with words urging us to buy this or believe that. The science of ad­vertising (or propaganda) controls our lives to a measure that we hesitate to ad­mit. Fortunes are won and lost because of faulty communication of meaning.

In addition to the significance of words in the material world, we note the same "web of words" in the political and philo­sophical world. Words are used today to mean something quite opposite to what they meant a few years ago; for example, "democracy," "welfare state," "orthodoxy,"

"Armageddon," "old paths," "capital and labor." The traditional certainties are giv­ing way, and our present-day world is look­ing for new maps and sounder paths. This, however, will come only through new eval­uations and new thinking—new ways of facing life facts, coupled with accurate communication of meaning. The truths of the past must be restated in words that are immediately understood in the language of the present.

Einstein said it well in his telegram to the Atomic Energy Commission on the oc­casion of its appointment. In effect, "we must adopt a new type of thinking, if we are to survive as a civilization." 2 Conse­quently, language becomes a great matter of concern, an urgent concern, for language is the "vehicle of our ways of thinking."

"And they read from the book, from the law of God, clearly ["with interpretation," margin]; and they gave the sense, so that the people understood" (Neh. 8:8, R.S.V.).

Another basic reason for a constant study of language structure is that interpersonal relationships continually cry out for more efficient understanding. The biggest prob­lem we all face is the ability to live with ourselves and with one another. Does the wife really understand the husband? Does the child find reliability in his parent? Does the employer know the real reason for his employee's request for a raise in salary? Is the employee satisfied with his job? Hours are lost in committee meetings because men misunderstand one another's words. Consequently, motives are misinterpreted and a speedy dispatch of the business at hand is not encouraged.

To answer these questions we must come face to face with a statement made by Henry James: "All life comes back to the question of our speech, the medium through which we communicate with each other."

We have noted some tragic consequences of the breakdown of communication. You and I and the rest of the world, frankly, find ourselves misunderstood because of faulty language habits. John just does not get through to Jane, and there is disagreement and unhappiness. Because of this everyday, worldwide predicament, it is necessary, in the name of common sense, that we study words and our language habits. When we do, two main compensations are awaiting us. First, we will gain a sense of the problems and difficulties involved in making accurate statements about ourselves and the world about us. Second, we will catch a view of the "maladjustments, both personal and so­cial, that have their roots in improper eval­uation because of false-to-fact language habits." '

As we enter this survey of language habits we do not make our own paths. Some men of our day have been as concerned as you and I about the tragedy of communica­tion failure.

Within the last twenty years a new sci­ence has been born, called general seman­tics. Some of the men who have charted our little exploration into a better understand­ing of words are Alfred Korzybski, the leading exponent, Wendell Johnson, Irv­ing Lee, Thurman Arnold, Douglas Camp­bell, Hugh Walpole, Frances Chisholm, Stuart Chase, S. E. Hayakawa, C. D. Ogden, I. A. Richards, and others.

What then is the scope of general seman­tics? What does it attempt to accomplish?

What Is General Semantics?

General semantics endeavors to bring ac­curacy into the communication of mean­ing. "When people can agree," Stuart Chase notes, "on the thing to which their words refer, minds meet. The communica­tion line is cleared."

We have already noted the breakdown of family unity, pastor-congregation rap­port, and world peace because we, too often, fail to deliver facts from mind to mind and have them understood in the con­tent and/or in intent. To bridge this gap we look to general semantics, which White­head defines as "the acquisition of the art of utilization of knowledge."

According to Irving Lee, this definition "lies at the heart of Alfred Korzybski's for­mulation of 'General Semantics.' In that discipline the ways to accuracy, discrimina­tion, and proper evaluation are sought at every point, ending in terms and methods which even five-year-olds have been able to learn."

This business of communication, that is, the transfer of knowledge, the giving of counsel, et cetera, is a hazardous undertak­ing. Some would think that words are sent forth to be impressed upon the minds of our parents or children or audience like a rubber stamp to docile paper. Nothing could be more contrary to fact. Instead, "there is an extremely complicated group of processes involved."

We have a thought, a meaning, in our mind, and we choose words and ges­tures to convey these meanings to those who listen. As the words flow, the listener is required to translate what he hears into meanings. Garrison describes this process as follows:

(See PDF for the description)

"Many complex problems are involved in the double transition. It is difficult, if not impossible, for 'C' to be identical with 'A' except in the most elementary acts of com­munication—such as simple pointing." "

Again, Garrison points out that "human communication is limited in its effective­ness, for meaning does not attach words in the same way that a message is fastened to a carrier pigeon." "

General semantics strives to bring "A" and "C" closer together by giving the lis­tener a number of practical questions that must be asked during any kind of com­munication. It is more a skill than a body of subject matter."

Hugh Walpole suggests three ways in which a study of semantics will help you and me. First, we will understand better what we hear and read." Second, we will talk and write more effectively." Third, we will think more accurately."

Perhaps one of the most succinct defini­tions of general semantics is made by Wen­dell Johnson who states:

"'General Semantics' is concerned with the pervasive problem of the relation of language to reality, of word to fact, of the­ory to description, and of description to data—of the observer to the observed, of the knower to the knowable." "

It is difficult to define general semantics further without describing the subject mat­ter itself.

Words Are Maps

The prime principle of general seman­tics is that words must fit life facts as a map must fit the territory it purports to de­scribe. Korzybski states it thus:

"If we reflect upon our languages we find that at best they must be considered only as maps." And further, "A language, to be useful, should be similar in its structure to the structure of the events which it is sup­posed to represent." "

Korzybski's famous analogy illustrates the correlation between the structure of the map and the structure of the land it de­scribes.

"Let us take some actual territory in which cities appear in the following order: Paris, Dresden, Warsaw, when taken from the west to the east. If we were to build a map of this territory and place Paris be­tween Dresden and Warsaw thus:

(See pdf for description)

we would say that the map was wrong, or that it was an incorrect map, or that the map has a different structure from the ter­ritory. If, speaking roughly, we should try, in our travels, to orient ourselves by such a map, we should find it misleading. It would lead us astray, and we might waste a great deal of unnecessary effort. In some cases, even, a map of wrong structure would bring actual suffering and disaster, as, for instance, in a war or in the case of an urgent call for a physician." "

Lee suggests that there is an exact paral­lel between a thermometer registering at freezing while immersed in boiling water and words that do not fit the facts. Both symbols (thermometer and words), we say, are "wrong," "inaccurate," and "mislead­ing." "

When Hitler said, in 1938, that he wanted "no more land in Europe," he also had his armies mobilized for invasion. His words did not fit life facts. Many political speeches are of this category.

We note this failure of words to match the facts in the rush of those who make profit in betraying the faith of the ordinary citizen. Many "maps" that do not fit the facts are caught each year by the Better Business Bureau. With this organization we might put the Food and Drug Admin­istration, the Department of Weights and Measures, the Underwriters' Laboratory, the Bureau of Investigation of the Amer­ican Medical Association, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Senate investi­gating committees. This list serves to re­mind us "that complete faith in what is said, and expectations based on that faith, too often, end in disappointment and dis­aster."'

To realize that words can be bandied about at the whim of the user might not be soothing, but it is tragically so. Lee sees relevancy in a story of the small Austrian village that was attacked by hostile forces. To preserve the priceless possession of the village, the bell in the tower of the Rathaus, three of the men rowed it to the center of a nearby lake. To make sure they would know where they had sunk the bell, one of the men cut a deep mark in the side of the boat, at the spot where the bell was dropped overboard. Just as that boat mark can be moved about and lose all con­nection with its object, so too can words be moved about without regard to what they are supposed to represent.'

Another aspect of words as "maps" is noted when we are given verbal assurance of circumstances to come. Lee describes a man who was to make his first speech to a group of youngsters. He had faced adults many times, but the youngsters were a new venture. The principal of the school as­sured him that they would listen as quietly and as intently as adults. In a very short while the speaker lost control of the young audience because he had relied on the prin­cipal's advice. Lee sees a difference be­tween the language structure of the facts and the facts themselves.

"He was led to expect simplicity and found complexity. His adjustment was affected when the circumstances ran counter to what he expected. The verbal assurances given him had low predictability value." 22

The map was wrong, and a personality adjustment was inevitable. MacGowan points out that "unconscious identifica­tions, when false-to-fact, lead to delusional thinking, unreliable conclusions and some­times to pathological conditions."20 This type of wrong use of words does not just happen once in life. It seems to happen every day.

How many times do mothers "tell the truth" when John asks, "Does the dentist hurt, Mother'?" or when Jane questions, "Will-the penicillin needle hurt?" The ex­amples seem endless. Doctors, preachers, teachers, politicians, and others, as well as parents, are guilty of these breeding grounds for personality maladjustment, for "if the statements by means of which we are oriented are not adequate representations, it will be difficult to prepare for what is to be met in the world of direct experience." "

Another application of this principle might be called "minimum expectancy." 25 Jane, very excited over the coming party, says, "I bet Anne's party will be wonder­ful." Mother replies, "I hope so, dear. Go and see, but don't be too sure."

Or John says, "Will we go to the moun­tains next Sunday, Dad?" Father replies, "Let's plan to, but many things can hap­pen. It might rain or I might be called to a committee meeting. We can plan, but we can't be sure."

The child, through this simple tech­nique, is being warned of possible disap­pointment, of which life frequently con­sists. This use of our language saves young people from shocks when events do not come off as planned. The "map" is more like the territory it describes. Too many people go through life trying to match life facts with some old folk tales given to them in childhood. The words of the tale and the reality of life never seem to meet. Because of these generalities, tales, et cetera, we find bewildered parents who do not understand why Jane and John do not act according to the "rules," disillusioned ministerial interns who expect supervised coaching in the art of church leadership, frustrated husbands and wives.

The results of this bewilderment, disillu­sionment, and frustration are maladjusted personalities, victims of poor word struc­ture. So much can be said.

Is a Cat a Cat?

Though I hesitate to quote from sources of this type, yet some pertinent wisdom is found in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass:

"Humpty Dumpty said: 'There's glory for you.' I don't know what you mean by "glory," ' Alice said. Humpty smiled con­temptuously, 'Of course you don't—till I tell you. I meant, "There's a nice knock­down argument for you." "But "glory" doesn't mean "a nice knockdown argu­ment, Alice objected. 'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.' The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make a word mean so many different things.' The question is,' said Humpty, 'which is to be master, that's all.' " "

Garrison points out that "no word has a 'correct' meaning." " Our dictionaries point out the conventional usages of a word, but this gives little help to a listener who knows of the word in one sense, whereas the speaker uses it in another. In understanding the meaning of a particular word, we must review three viewpoints. First, what does the context suggest? Sec­ond, what does the word mean in the light of the speaker's background, and third, in the light of the hearer's back-around? "

It is necessary to do more than define a word; we must define the sense in which it is used. For instance, "John saw the cat." Just what did John see? Did John see the raising of an anchor? the first coat of plaster on lath? the house pet? the lion or leopard? the fish? the freight vessel? the whipping implement? the double tripod? the boys playing ball? the spiteful woman? the extra hand in card playing? the earth-moving tractor? or any one of the other fifteen definitions of the simple word "cat"?

As Welby says, "There is, strictly speak­ing, no such thing as the sense of a word, but only the sense in which it is used." If the word "cat" signifies so many objects, we shall look in vain for the one absolute duty it should perform.

"A word may be related to its context in the way a letter is related to the word in which it appears. In each case word and letter are but parts of a larger unit, their characteristics are best studied only as they appear in those units. Just as it is not pos­sible to describe the sound, or stress value of a letter before it exists in a word, so, too, it is pointless to assume a use value of a word distinct from its use in discourse." "

With each word possessing the possibil­ity of several meanings, communication becomes a problem of discovering what the speaker means by the words he uses. Words have been likened to sponges, which do not have the rigidity of granite. A word takes its shape in a sentence as a "result of pressure placed upon it by other words and like sponges, words soak up fluid from their environment." "

Back in 1941 when photographers began taking pictures of Anthony Eden during a speech in this country, he raised his hand, saying, "Don't shoot, please." The next day the German radio reported that "an at­tempt was made on the life of Mr. Eden, English War Minister, yesterday.' Each word is interpreted in the light of the par­ticular past culture of each hearer.

This simple fact, that a word may have a lengthy list of uses and not only one, may save us from much confusion. It will make us more tolerant of others and cause us to reflect longer before we condemn and ridi­cule. The user of the words we disagree with may have his meaning equally clear in his mind.

The Adventist minister will think of many words that always create conflict of meaning until each member of the dis­cussion defines and describes exactly what he means when he uses the disputed word; for example, "seminary training," "evangelism," "short campaigns," "king of the north," "cleansing of the sanctuary," "mod­ern Bible," and "sanctification."

It would be well to develop a habitual awareness of the fact that what is being said may not represent what you have as­sumed it does. The study of semantics teaches us to be cautious in projecting our impressions onto the discourse. We should mentally, and, if there is opportunity, ver­bally, ask the speaker, "Because terms may be used in many ways, will you give me an example which will explain what you are using it to represent?"

Request the one speaking to fit his word into a concrete life fact that both of you can see. By your doing this, both the lis­tener and the speaker are looking at the same "map" of the same thought territory. Fundamentally, the question is not, What do I think these words mean? but, What does the speaker mean when he uses these words?

Without this semantic device whatever a speaker says is interpreted by the listener in terms of his total experience and pres­ent inner wants. This leads to ultimate failure in communication, which is the open door to maladjustment.



1 Stuart Chase, The Tyranny of Words, p. 19. 

2 Leroy W. MacGowan, "A High School Course in Human Relations." General Semantics Bulletin, nos. 4, 5, p. 56.

3 Irving J. Lee, Language Habits in Human Allabs, p. xiii.

4 ibid.p. 6.

5 Ibid., p. 11.

6 Chase, op. cit., p. 9.

7 Lee, op. cit., p. xvi.

8 Loc. cit.

9 Webb Garrison, The Preacher and His Audience, p. 46.

10 Ibid., p. 47.

11 Ibid., p. 63.

12 Hugh Walpole, Semantics, p. 22.

13 Ibid., p. 28.

14 Ibid., p. 30.

15 Ibid., p. 31.

16 Cited in Garrison, op. cit.. p. 49.

17 Alfred Korzybski, Science and Sanity, pp. 58, 412.

I8 Ibid.p. 58.

19 Lee, op. cit.. p. 17.

20 Ibid., p. 21.

21 Ibid., p. 20.

22 Ibid., p. 21.

23 MacGowan, op. cit., p. 57.

24 Lee, op. cit., p.21.

23 "General Semantics and Child Training," General Semantics Bulletin, nos. 6, 7.

24 Cited in Lee, op. cit., p. 47.

25 Garrison, op. cit., p. 59.

26 Ibid., p. 60.

27 Lee, op. cit., p. 36.

28 2C1., p. 37.

29 Garrison, op. cit., p. 60.

30 Life, Feb. 10, 1941, p. 26, cited in Lee, op. cit., p. 43.

31 Lee, op. cit., p. 47.

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HERBERT E. DOUGLASS, Instructor, Department of Religion, Pacific Union College

July 1956

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