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In his book “What does it all mean?” distinguished author Thomas Nagel reflects on how meanings come to be associated with words. Sometimes words by their very pronunciation seem to refer to the meaning such as ‘whisper’ and ‘bang’. But generally, words do not carry exact references to what they mean. There are many types of words: nouns, adjectives, prepositions, etc. All words in general, have meanings that contribute towards the meaning of sentences or statements. There are words that can be explained by some other words and those words, in turn, may hold other meanings. But finally, there must be some words that have meaning directly.
“Tobacco” is generally spoken of in the context of cigarettes and cigars though it is actually the name of a plant. Everyone in the world no matter what language he speaks understands that tobacco smoking refers to cigars and cigarettes. This seems to indicate that there is a universal idea or concept behind the word “tobacco”. The relation between the word and the idea and between the idea and the stuff needs to be explored further. Is the relationship caused by the working of the human mind? The mind does conjure up an image when the word ‘tobacco’ is used. It could be of a plant or some dried leaves or a cigarette. Each person sees a different image in his mind for the word ‘tobacco’ and yet the meaning the word holds is the same for all persons.
To quote Nagel: “The mystery of meaning is that it doesn’t seem to be located anywhere — not in the word, not in the mind, not in a separate concept or idea hovering between the word, the mind, and the things we are talking about. And yet we use language all the time, and it enables us to think complicated thoughts which span great reaches of time and space” (Nagel, p. 43). One can talk about fantasies and dream trips to faraway galaxies using words that contain complicated facts that may be true or false.
Language is mostly a system of signals and symbols. Pictures of ladies and an arrow mark can indicate that it’s the way to the ladies’ room. Words are used as tools during interpersonal relations. The use of language to describe worlds that are unknown to us shows us something about how it is used on a day-to-day basis. A simple statement such as “There’s salt on the table” can be used in different contexts. The same meaning exists in different contexts – which could be practical or descriptive or hypothetical. But to get the meaning in other complicated contexts, it is essential that the statement must refer to something general in the practical context: “Whatever is going on in the ordinary, practical case must be something general enough also to explain these other, quite different cases where it means the same thing” (Nagel, p. 45).
Language is a social phenomenon that has been passed on to us across generations. Hence meanings of words are mostly inputs obtained from an existing system of language. It is possible for a person to make a new word with a particular meaning, but it has to be defined in terms of already existing words. Thus words have a meaning as part of the wider use of that word in English. Moreover, the use of a word gets its wider meaning by placing it in a larger context. Only then, the word gets its content from all those other uses of the same word most of which the user may not know much about.
Though one may say that the word gets its meaning from the English language when it is used by many people across the world it gets a universal meaning that is beyond the regular context in which it is used. The problem of the relation of language to the world is one that is fascinating. The meaning of a word can have different possible uses, it can be true or false, and actual uses of the meaning of a word that the user knows are a “tiny fraction of the possible ones” (Nagel, p. 46).
Thus, by acquiring wider meaning, words can help us understand the whole world and give human beings the ability to fantasize and invent things that do not exist. While this is true, the problem is in explaining how this is possible.
Nagel, Thomas (1987). What Does It All Mean? A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy. Oxford University Press. New York. 1987. 38-46