Semantics 3

Robert Harris
Version Date: June 8, 2000

Major Principles of Semantics

Principle 1
The Word is not the Thing.
The Word is Only a Label.

Every thing or idea exists independently of the word or words used to describe it, and no thing is changed simply by changing the word or words describing it. For example the act of running away in the face of battle is not changed whether it is called "deserting" or "a heroic retreat." The perception of the act may change, of course, but the act does not. Similarly, a pile of horse intestines will not change whether we call it "animal waste" or "pet food ingredients."

A word for a thing is only a label. A word as a label is only a symbolic representation of a thing used to identify the thing itself or the approximate, general class or category to which the thing belongs. Words exist only for the convenience of symbolic identification and communication; they are not proofs of being, quality, or nature. No thing is dependent upon its name for existence or attributes. If you call a tree a "glecch," the thing is not changed.

Be careful, then, of responding to the sounds of words or phrases which appear either attractive or repulsive. Pay attention to the thing itself. This can be difficult, because we are all influenced to some extent by semantic casting--the opinions, prejudices, connotations built into certain words. Shakespeare has written,

That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

But suppose we change the name of a rose to "skunk weed." Would we be as inclined to go over and sniff, or to plant it around our house? Ideally, we should not be so affected by labels, but in actual practice, we are too often weak and vulnerable. And sometimes the rose is made to smell even sweeter by changing its name. The use of hyperbolic euphemisms has increased substantially in recent years in an effort to dress up previously ordinary things. Take the descriptions of jobs, for example.
Old Name New Name
garbage man sanitation engineer
stock broker investment counselor
salesman product representative
used car dealer pre-owned automobile dealer, seller of experienced automobiles

The new names sound a bit more impressive, but the things they refer to have not changed.

Changing the word does not change the thing.

For example, when a land sales company buys up a thousand acres of "Ratbone Gulch," and changes the name to "Pleasant Valley," the area itself is not automatically changed. Only our perception of it is. One developer who built a housing tract near a dry gravel wash wanted to put the best face he could on this nearby eyesore, so he called his development "Creekside."

Remember, you can put a "Wheaties" label on a box of rat poison, but you'll still drop dead if you eat the stuff.

Similarly, those who can see beyond the name of a thing and who can recognize that the name of a thing does not fix its use can understand that the thing is not restricted to any function its name implies. For example, "Mr. Tough Kitchen Cleaner" might work very well in cleaning bathrooms; a "screwdriver" can be used to pry off paint can lids; a "kiddie swimming pool" can be used as a fish pond; a "rubber glove" can be used (in a pinch) as a baby bottle. But since many people do tend to think of things only in terms of the names of the things, it is sometimes necessary to give one thing several different names in order to fulfill all of its uses. An example of this from pharmacology is the medicine prochlorperazine. The application names for this medicine include these:

major tranquilizer
anti-nausea drug

Now imagine a concerned mother bringing her eight-year-old vomiting child to the doctor. What will be her reaction if the doctor says, "Well, Mrs. Jones, I'm going to give Johnny an antipsychotic drug to control his nausea"? The term "antipsychotic drug" sounds like a pretty scary thing to be giving a little child who is suffering only from nausea. But if the doctor says, "Well, Mrs. Jones, I'm going to give Johnny some anti-nausea medicine," Mrs. Jones will no doubt be very happy. Yet the thing (the medicine) has not changed at all; only the word or label has changed.

And when you are thinking of buying some shares of stock, would you rather invest your hard-earned money in "Joe's Pig Farm" or in "HogTronix Systems, Inc." or even better, "HogTronix.com"?

Principle 2
A Word is a Label
A Label is a Judgment

When we select a word which we believe makes an appropriate label for the thing or idea in mind, we have thereby formed a judgment about the thing or idea, and have attached that judgment to it by using the particular word we have chosen. But whatever word we select, and whatever attitude or judgment we convey by it, we do not alter the thing itself. The judgment and therefore the word can be argued or changed, while the thing remains constant. Thus a word applied to a certain thing is only an opinion of applicability. For example, here at my elbow is an animal that barks and wags its tail.

This animal is a
flea-bitten cur
child's pet
menace to society
hound dog
filthy mutt
dumb beast
little doggie
good companion
mangy animal
expert hunting dog

all depending on who is doing the labeling and judging. Our own words and the words of others represent judgments which we must evaluate to determine their applicability to the things they purport to describe or represent. Much language is intended to direct or control the reader's attitudes and beliefs, and certain words are applied to things because the words embody opinions (often of approval or disapproval) about the things they name or describe.

Does your neighbor's pipe give off a

Note how each of the following word pairs embodies two quite different judgments about the same thing or idea:
activist troublemaker
piece of old junk antique
neighborhood news gossip
chef cook
hairdo coiffure
delicate flimsy
firm oppressive
bug spray toxic nerve poison
chauffeur driver
excited hysterical
hiker's energy aid candy bar

Sometimes people try to reorient us or change our beliefs by selectively labeling or mislabeling things. Mixing some oats into candy bars and putting them in the cereal section is perhaps one example. A lot of money can be at stake over seemingly trivial name applications. For example, is a van a car or a truck? Foreign pickup trucks are subject to very high import tariffs that cars are not. So it the van is a truck, a high tariff must be paid; if it's a car, a low tariff is paid. You can see why people argue over labels.

Suppose you meet a man printing what look like $20 bills. You ask him if he is a counterfeiter and he says, "No, I'm an artist, making exact photolithographic reproductions of American paper culture--in this case, $20 bills. How do you decide whether he is a counterfeiter or an artist?

Often people insist that words have meanings, connotations, or implications we are unwilling to grant; and here, of course, they are sometimes correct. But that may mean we need to seek new or better words to describe the things, rather than that the things themselves contain the implications we object to. Remember that a given word does not necessarily at all describe, represent, or apply to the thing for which it has been offered as a label.

Suppose you walk into a car dealership and see a sporty looking car. You ask the salesman, "Is this a sports car or a sports coupe?" knowing that insurance companies see the two kinds of car differently. The salesman responds, "Which did you want?" What do you think he will say if you say either "sports car" or "sports coupe"?

Consider these verbal manipulations:

Principle 3
Sameword-1 is not Sameword-2
One Word is not One Unalterable Concept

We noted earlier that a single word can refer to many different things, because a word often represents a category or general class. One of the greatest confusions caused by language arises from the incorrect assumption that whenever a particular word is used, the same thing is meant.

A woman bought a pie in a bakery. "Should I cut it into six pieces or eight?" asked the clerk. "Six," replied the woman. "I'm on a diet." Clearly, in this pie example, the term "piece of pie" is a flexible and changing concept. The words remain the same but the thing to which they refer does not. Therefore, to assume that "a piece of pie is a piece of pie" is erroneous: Piece-of-pie-1 is not the same as Piece-of-pie-2.

Similarly, suppose you are driving down the street and see the signs of two competing Mexican restaurants:

Luncheon Special:


$2.00 Come to La Fiesta

Luncheon Enchilada

only $4.25 at Miguel's

The enchilada at La Fiesta is cheaper than at Miguel's. So is La Fiesta a better value? "My friends, what is an enchilada?" Is it two ounces of ground beef? Three ounces of chopped beef? One ounce of cheese? Certainly, enchilada-1 is not necessarily (or even probably) the same as enchilada-2.

Suppose you ask a friend how much he paid for his car, and he tells you, "Well, it cost about as much as a horse." How much did his car cost? Of course you cannot tell. Horse-1 is not horse-2 is not horse-3. Horses sell for anywhere from about $500 to well over $5,000,000. This one word, "horse," covers many different and highly variable animals--from thirty-inch-tall miniatures to Clydesdale giants, from thoroughbred race horses to family pets.

Note the fuzzy thinking caused by confusing two things because of their shared name or label:

And much worse than confusing one car or jack with another is the same-name confusion involving people. The result is often some wild, unqualified generalization: When two (or more) things are referred to by the same word or label, they probably share certain general characteristics of the class or category named by the word or label. But in nearly every case there are important differences between the things sharing the term, and often this specific differentiation can be more important than the general similarities.

For example, a pesticide, an electronic fly zapper, and a hammer could all be described as a "bug killer," but in spite of this common name, each is quite different from the others. Even things which are largely similar, like houses or cars, are different in many respects. So once again, we must not be fooled into equating different things simply because they have a common name. We must seek to understand what each speaker or writer means by a given term, and not assume that he means what we mean when we use the term.

What's in a Person's Name?

As a student of semantics, you know by now that a name is only a label for something: there is no necessary elemental connection between a thing and the name given to it by someone. We therefore, in our sophisticated understanding, know not to respond to the names, the labels, we find on things. Most people, however, are not like us. They do respond to names as if the names revealed something essential about the thing named.

We find an excellent case in point in the stereotypes associated with people's names. Your name, in fact, may help determine how likable you are, how attractive you appear to other people, how intelligent you are, how agreeable or demanding, and even whom you choose to marry. Not long ago a young man wrote to an advice columnist in the paper, informing her that his mother had advised him to "marry a Cindy or a Meg, rather than a girl who would be egotistical and hard to live with"--as if he could choose personality characteristics on the basis of a name.

You may be shaking your head with disbelief, but don't be so sure you're innocent. For example, who do you think is prettier, Gertrude Johnson or Jennifer Johnson? The stereotype of the "homely Gertrude," the ugly name and the ugly face, is so strong that anyone named Gertrude is automatically at a social disadvantage.

Similarly, who is more dynamic and masculine, Percy Jones or Mark Jones? The Percies of the world operate at a disadvantage, too, because their name is disliked by many people because of its sissy stereotype.

Many movie stars, conscious that their names are viewed as revealing something about themselves, have changed their rather unattractive names to ones more befitting a popular and attractive star. Thus, for example, Bernard Schwartz changed his name to Tony Curtis, Leonard Slye changed his to Roy Rogers, James Bumgarner dropped the bum and became James Garner.

The problem with this name changing is that stereotypes can get reinforced rather than removed. Marion Morrison, realizing that Marion is a sissy name for a man, changed his name to John Wayne, a more masculine label. Had he remained Marion Morrison, however, he may have done a lot to rehabilitate the name Marion. Similarly, Maurice Micklewhite, rather than try to succeed with the unpopular name Maurice, changed his name to Michael Caine, thus reinforcing the positive associations given to Michael. Michael, by the way, was the most popular boy's name in 1980.

The "ugly name" stereotype cuts both ways, too. When William Pratt decided to make horror movies, he changed his name to Boris Karloff, a much more apparently "likely" name for a horror film star. Do you think of a Boris or Igor or Ivan as cute?

A recent study of first names shows the most popular boys' names are Michael, Jason, Matthew, Brian, Christopher, David, John, James, Jeffrey, Daniel, Stephen, Eric, and Robert. The most popular names for girls are Jennifer, Amy, Sarah, Michelle, Kimberly, Heather, Kelly, Rebecca, Catherine, Elizabeth, Julie, Melissa, and Lisa.

The popular names are not the ones to worry about, however, because they usually help to make the person they are attached to more socially acceptable. Surveys of children have revealed that certain names are highly unpopular, and kids with unpopular names tend to be discriminated against in play and social interaction. If you name your child Melvin, Marvin, Elmer, Hubert, Percy, Chauncy, Mortimer, Clarence, Gertrude, Irma, Harriet, Zaida or any strange name that calls attention to itself, such as Reyno, Epatha, Sarallen, or Rodnil, your child will probably have difficulty. The most intolerance of unpopular or different names comes in childhood, when personalities are being formed, so a bad name can harm a child for life.

While we are on the subject of naming your baby, I should offer a few more tips about things to avoid.

First, don't give your son a unisex name. Boys with such names are invariably tormented by their friends. Save names like Claire, Leslie, Robin, Shirley, Terry, Lee, and Lauren for girls.

Second, be careful about giving your daughter a feminized boy's name. Some parents are so hopeful for a son named Fred that whey they inadvertently have a daughter, they name her Fredina. Names like Georgette and Sammi can be unkind. However, Paula, Roberta, and Mikki seem to work fine.

Third, don't make a joke of your child's name by fitting a first name that's funny in connection with the last name. Examples of genuine cruelties wreaked on children include Kuhl Breeze, Betty Burp, Solomon Gemorah, Lavender Hankey, Iva Odor, Honor Roll, Cigar Stubbs, Justin Tune. Imagine having to go through life trying to get respect with one of those names.

Fourth, don't give your child a name that is also a slang term for bodily functions or private anatomical parts. This is a rule that Pat Boone neglected in naming one of his daughters Cherry. Jake is close to jakes, an outdoor bathroom. Trixy is close to trick, a slang term for a prostitute. Make sure the child's initials don't spell anything obscene, too. And avoid names for your daughter that will make her appear like a frivolous object to be used or consumed. Names like Candy, Brandy, Lollipop, Cookie, Lovee and so on can trivialize your child in the eyes of the world.

Fifth, avoid names that will "date" your son or daughter. Names like Farrah and Cher are examples of this.

Sixth, choose a name for your daughter that will include a serious form of the name in addition to a nonserious one. Your daughter might want to become a lawyer, a philosopher, a public figure, or even a professor. If the only name she has is a nonserious name, she will have difficulty getting intellectual respect. For example, would you read a book on metaphysics by Bambi Johnson or Sissy Smith or Babe Thompson? The grown woman whose only name is Mandy or Missy may have trouble. I suggest you think about names like Patty/Patricia, Kathy/Katherine, Terri/Teresa, Liz/Elizabeth or the like. Remember that you are not just naming a baby; you are naming a whole human. A name like Prissy might be really cute for a two-year-old, but for a thirty year old, it doesn't command much respect.

In an interesting experiment, a political science professor passed out to his students ballots with several candidates' names on them. The students didn't recognize any of the names but were told to vote as best they could. They instinctively chose the nice sounding names like Smith and avoided the strange names like Kroznowski. In the process, they learned, they unknowingly voted for a slate of communists, anarchists, and radicals, and voted against the moderates in every case.

The stereotyped response we reveal toward people's names is carried over into the names of things with even more of a vengeance. Manufacturers know this, of course, and so they take pains to give their products names appropriate to the perception they want to create. We've looked at the nicely emotive qualities of some product names like Love Drops, Cheer, Rebel cigarettes and so forth. Automobiles are carefully named to create the impression of a wide range of quality and elegance. The inexpensive cars that the American automakers don't want you to buy unless you can't afford anything else are given reductive names, almost on the edge of insult: Pinto, Chevette, Colt, Pony, while the more expensive cars command more expensive names: Regal, Le Baron, New Yorker, Marquis.

Interestingly enough, when a consumer likes a product, and thinks something like, "I'll remember that name," in many cases what he buys the second or third time through is not the same product but only the same name. A few years ago I was in a library looking through a poison control reference book and happened to come across the formula for Tide detergent. As it turns out, the formula for Tide depends on what detergents are cheapest when they mix up a batch. Of the half dozen or so listed ingredients in the handbook, the proportions of each varied enormously. One, for example, could range from 20 to 60 percent of the mix. Long ago, Ipana toothpaste was discontinued. A clever entrepreneur bought rights to the name, had a company mix up some toothpaste and put "Ipana" back on the market--only it was an entirely different product. People who had liked the brand continued to buy it and made the businessman $19 million a year.

Historical meanings can be significant, too. The word "skittles," which is now also a brand of candy, is an old slang term for diarrhea. Not many people older than, say 50 or 60 will be buying the candy, I imagine.

Functional Fixation

One of the most serious problems we encounter with the stereotyping of things based on their names is that of functional fixation, the blinding assumption that what a thing is called utterly determines what it does. Thus, a screwdriver drives screws, period. When someone thinks, "Hmm. I need something to chip this ice, but I don't have an ice pick. All I have is a screwdriver. Too bad." he is a victim of functional fixation. Just because an object is named a screwdriver, of course, doesn't mean it can't be used for an ice pick, a pry bar, an electrical conductor, a hole puncher, a paperweight, a plumb bob, or a whole host of other things.

Here we are actually entering the arena of the Creative Thinking and Problem Solving class, but the problems created by functional fixation are so extensive and since the difficulty arises from the names of things, this information fits in well.

In an experiment, a group of people were put into a room with a pipe containing a ping pong ball. The group was asked to figure out how to get the ball out of the pipe without damaging either. In the room were a few items like a coat hanger, a piece of wood, and so on. When a bucket of water was put on the floor of the room as one of the tools, more than sixty percent of the groups figured out that the ball could be extracted by pouring water into the pipe. But when a pitcher of ice water was put on the table and surrounded with drinking glasses, only twenty-five percent of the groups figured out the water pouring solution. Many were self-victimized by functional fixation. The pitcher of iced drinking water was just that, and was not considered at all as a tool for solving the problem.

There is also a functional fixation of businesses based on their names, too. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the railroads saw themselves as railroads. When automobiles and later airplanes began to come in, the railroads didn't adapt. "That's not our business," they said. But if they had seen themselves as in the people transportation business rather than in the railroad business, they could have capitalized on a great opportunity. Similarly, when the telephone began its rise, some of the telegraph companies said, "That's not our business; we're telegraph companies." But if they had said, "Hey, we're in the communication business, and here's a new way to communicate," they would have grown rather than died. Compare Western Union to AT&T. And have you heard of those big calculator companies Dietzgen or Pickett? No? Well, they were among the biggest makers of slide rules. But when electronic calculators began to rise, they didn't know what business they were in. They thought they were in the slide rule business, when they were really in the calculator business. They didn't adapt, they didn't accept the challenge of change and opportunity, and they fell.

And there's a functional fixation of people, too. Think a minute how you react when you see your pastor mowing his lawn, or your auto mechanic on the Tonight Show promoting a book. Remember in one of the Superman movies the mistress of Robert Vaughan secretly reads abstract philosophy--and our reaction is to laugh. We have already defined her as a dumb blonde bimbo and will believe no data that conflicts with our fixed idea, data that does not conveniently support the label we have chosen for her. And such typing is true for many of us in the way we look at others. We permit only a narrow range of attitudes and behaviors in other people because we require that they act in ways consistent with our labels for them. Think of those statements like, "I can't believe he said that," or "Imagine her doing that," or "It's not like him," "She's not my type," and so forth.

The last thing you need to know about names is their flexibility. If you don't like your own name, for example, you can change it. You are legally permitted to use any name you want as long as you don't use a name for purposes of deception or criminal acts. Some people use several names. Very prolific writers often adopt several pen names so they don't dilute their market with too many books by the same author. Instead of a book a month by one author, a given name is used only once a year.

In a way around functional fixation, some product manufacturers package the same product under different names. A cleaner might be labeled bathroom cleaner, bowl cleaner, or kitchen cleaner in order to secure a niche market or to get people to use the product in each of those areas. Special purpose cleaners are often viewed as being more effective than general purpose ones, though the perception is not necessarily grounded in fact.

By realizing, then, that most people are at least to some extent prisoners of names and labels, and that even we must be carefully conscious not to be seduced by such equations between thing and name, we can free ourselves from many of the automatic stereotyping, fixating, and categorizing that hinders our intellectual existence. And we can take care to prevent ourselves or our children from being unfairly typed or rejected simply because of their names.

Exercise 1

What difference does the defining word or label make in each of these statements? A. These are minced clams.
hacked up dead scavengers.
B. He is a fanatic.
an enthusiast.
C. She is confident.
D. They run a lottery.
a numbers racket.
E. We are for socialism.
economic democracy.
F. His favorite dish is escargot extraordinaire.
boiled snails.

Exercise 2

How do these different ingredient labels affect your impression of the contents of the cigars?

Exercise 3

Consider the confusion caused here by the same-name- equals-same-thing fallacy, and explain the need for differentiation.

Exercise 4

Since one word can mean or refer to quite different things or ideas, it is possible for people to agree on a term and yet be in profound disagreement about ideas. Notice here that each person does not really know what the other means. How would you explain to them the need for clarification? A. "I'm for justice." [Let's let him off.]
"I'm for justice, too." [Let's hang him.]
B. "My country is a democracy." [East Germany]
"My country is a democracy, too." [The U. S.]
C. "I love you." [You're so rich]
"I love you, too." [You're so beautiful]
D. "I believe in UFO's." [flying saucers]
"I believe in UFO's, too." [objects in the sky that cannot be identified]

Exercise 5

A common mistake in thinking is to assume that two terms refer to the same thing, when in fact they do not, or to assume that one term necessarily implies the other, when it really does not. When you read, be alert for such shifts or automatic conclusions. For example: Here the two concepts, "women being drafted" and "women being drafted for combat," are spoken of as if they were the same. Another example: Here the concepts of "paying arithmetically or proportionately more taxes" and "paying a higher percentage or rate of taxes" are confounded.

Exercise 6

The following two articles both concern the same event, yet they produce very different responses in the reader. Read them carefully and then discuss how the choice of words and details is effective in conveying the writer's opinions and biases. A few questions have been added below to help you.
Boa Escapes from Zoo

Jonesville--City zoo officials said to day that "Mandy," their South American boa constrictor, had escaped from his cage sometime during the night Tuesday. The ten-foot reptile apparently left through a feeding door which had not been properly latched.
Officials noticed the snake was missing Wednesday afternoon when they brought him the day's meal of six live, white rats.
Officials said they were worried that the animal might get run over, and asked the public to be on the lookout for him, because he could be just about anywhere.

+ + + + +

Deadly Snake at Large in Town

Jonesville--Concerned zoo officials admitted today that they did not know the whereabouts of a huge, ten-foot-long boa constrictor snake which had escaped into the darkness Tuesday night after forcing open the door of its cage. The powerful snake, which crushes or chokes its victims to death before eating them, was not missed until Wednesday afternoon--at least twelve hours after its escape.
Worried zoo officials asked the public to keep a close lookout for the hungry snake, since it could be lurking anywhere.


Exercise 7

Read these two articles and then discuss the methods used in slanting. Pay attention to the tone, choice of words, and the use of adjectives and syntax for conveying opinions. The questions below may be helpful.
Radioactive Contamination of Milk
Discovered Near Nuclear Plant Disaster

Middletown, Pa.--The FDA announced today that it had discovered the presence of radioactive iodine-131 in nineteen separate milk samples collected as far away as twenty miles from the crippled and leaking nuclear power plant at Three Mile Island.
The milk samples contained as much as 41 picocuries per liter of the radioactive iodine, and every sample of the nineteen contained at least some, averaging to 10 or 20 picocuries per liter.
Iodine-131 is a particularly worrisome contaminant because it moves quickly into the food chain and because when eaten, it lodges in the thyroid gland.
While current federal health standards still allow the milk to be sold when contaminated to the level discovered today, a spokesman for Safeway stores said that the firm had stopped buying milk from the central Pennsylvania farmers immediately after it heard of the test results.

+ + + + +

Traces of Radioactive Iodine Found in Milk Near Damaged A-Plant

Middletown, Pa.--The FDA announced today that its super-sensitive instruments had detected small amounts of iodine-131 in nineteen milk samples collected within twenty miles of the stricken nuclear plant at Three Mile Island.
While iodine-131 is a particularly worrisome contaminant because it moves quickly into the food chain and because when eaten, it lodges in the thyroid gland, the highest level recorded in the samples of milk was 41 picocuries per liter, with the average level being only 10 or 20. This was far below the 300 picocuries per liter produced in the United States by fallout from a Chinese nuclear test in 1976.
(Under present federal health standards, the FDA allows the sale of milk until radioactive iodine concentrations reach 12,000 picocuries per liter.)
In Washington, presidential assistant Jack Watson said that the FDA equipment used in measuring the iodine was so sensitive that "the same level" of radioactivity would probably be found in any milk tested anywhere at any time.
"The milk is safe to drink," Governor Thornburgh said.
Nevertheless, a spokesman for Safeway stores said that the firm had stopped buying milk from the central Pennsylvania farmers.



Terms and Concepts

a word is a label
a label is a judgment
sameword-1 is not sameword-2
functional fixation


1. Give examples of a word that refers to several quite different things.

2. Give examples of several words that refer to the same thing, and discuss what different judgments are implied by each word.

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Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com