A blupete Essay

Introduction, Part 1 to blupete's Essay
"Language: Lexicographic v. Stipulative Meanings"

To effectively exchange ideas it is necessary that the meaning of the term be the same in the mind of that person conveying the idea and that person receiving the idea. The lexicographic meaning of a word, if one is uncertain, is to be found in a good dictionary. However, some people, in the use of a particular word, stipulate their own meaning and forget to tell one about it.
"'I don't know what you mean by "glory,"' Alice said. Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. 'Of course you don't- till I tell you. I meant "there's a nice knock-down argument for you!"' 'But 'glory' doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument,"' Alice objected. 'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean- neither more nor less.' 'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.' 'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master- that's all.' (Lewis Carroll, 1832-98, Through the Looking-Glass, Ch. VI.)
I, personally, in years past, would become very nervous with grammatical presentation. I suppose I didn't want to become known as ignorant. Now that I'm older I have given up worrying about what people think about me: what is necessary, especially in my profession (the law) is that I should make myself clear. Unintentional ambiguity is a serious professional error. So, it is not whether one has used the right words, or presents them in an ungrammatical way: has one made himself as clear as he might in the expression of his ideas? It was Dr. Johnson, who in 1775, said, "No man ever could give law to language." There are no strict grammatical rules; what is necessary is that one, whether by spoken words or in writing, gets his or her ideas across. To do so it will be necessary to be familiar with the conventions. One can only become familiar with conventions by looking to others. When it comes to writing it is necessary to read, and to read a lot, day in, day out. It is necessary too in ones reading to read a wide variety of writers: "We must not believe that we know a language because we can successfully imitate the idiosyncracies of a few of its literary men."1

It is through language that we give our interpretations of our surroundings, both to ourselves and to others; and, more importantly, it is through language that we take the interpretation of the world from others. The extent and the correctness of our interpretations is a direct function of our knowledge of language. We cannot begin to understand this world without first having a thorough grasp of language, as a topic. First of all, you are going to have to understand that words can, and often do, have different meanings; some expressing a generally accepted notion, others not. Some have no meaning at all. This should be for us a very important study, for as Confucius said, "when words lose their meaning people lose their liberty."


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Peter Landry

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