THE WORD JERK Defending the universe from literary tyranny

A word jerk is, as amateur slang historian Lauren McCoy once put it, “a person who presumably takes some form of pleasure in using rare and complicated words when ordinary ones will suffice … there is nothing practical about this way of speaking.” Impractical perhaps, but I’ve always had a penchant for loquaciousness, even when it comes at the expense of understanding. I do this not because of some sadistic tendency towards social confusion, nor for lack of the ability to express myself, but chiefly in order to illustrate a simple point: Words are meaningless.

Words do, of course, seem meaningful. When you hear a word, your brain interprets its various sonic components into a complete idea, and from this idea you glean meaning. However, this appearance of meaningfulness is just that – appearance. The real meaning of the word is intangible and mental, transmitted from one person’s mouth to another’s ear inside a word. Speech is the only obvious physical link between minds, but it is also a considerable obstacle to overcome.

Consider for a moment that in a dictionary, it takes words to define words, and the most profound barrier to understanding a word is the language employed in its explanation. Have you ever taken a calculus class? In those first few classes, most students just sit there reeling in horror at the bizarre application of various words that were either previously assumed to be understood, or had no concrete definition. To gain a better conception of whence this tumultuous perplexity emanates, it would be advantageous to address the principle tenets of structural linguistics. Let’s talk about language.

Ferdinand de Saussure, a turn of the century Swiss linguist, examined the structure of language very deeply. His most influential currents of thought flowed from an idea of language being composed of identifiable elements, like signs and references. A sign is sub composed of a signifier (a word or any other symbol) and the signified (the idea represented by the word or symbol). He famously stated that “the connection between the signified and the signifier is arbitrary.”

This insight can help to explain the confusion encountered when addressing the language of something unfamiliar, like higher mathematics; without some acquaintance with the signified, the signifier has little hint of meaning. The symbols of the Calculus are nothing more than chalk on a blackboard to the uninitiated. Though Newton and his contemporaries conceived the system to reveal the hidden clockwork of the universe, it is little more another layer of obstruction to the understanding of those unwilling to learn the symbolism.

Even with a profound understanding of the signified, however, the signifier is only a hint of meaning, not meaning itself. So, words – the speech-signifiers of mental, intangible things – though they have definitions, do not have meaning, but only indicate meaning. They are therefore meaningless, which was to be demonstrated.

Yet, though our means of expression is objective and without meaning, the same isn't necessarily so for expression itself. If we know that our words are just the signifiers of what we want to say, we can get to the point without lots of superfluous jargon. Ludwig Wittgenstein, a philosopher of both language and mathematics, stated in his Tractacus Logico-Philosophicus that “what can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence.”

I have intentionally written all of the above using overly complex words to illustrate the point. It’s amazing how meaningless symbols and words can be, and even more amazing that some people are capable of expressing beautifully illuminating sentiments with minimal language. Again referring to mathematics, beauty is in simplicity of expression. Once you work through the ugly words and equations to get to the realm of pure thought, everything becomes clear, even obvious.

This is the purpose of language: Not to throw around symbols and work with structure, but to bushwhack through the jungle of false expression into the true mind of another person. We are constantly communicating meaning through meaningless things. Apply this principle and you will become a master of linguistic expressivity, as I, the word jerk, humbly hope to be.

//Sky Hester


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