semantics, schemantics

November 22, 2006 | By | 2 Replies More

I have a friend that is sometimes frustrating to converse with, because he always wants me to define the terms I use.  Our conversation is filled with his requests to explain just what I mean.  He says, with justification, that people may use the same word but often have different meanings for it and he just wants to be sure that he understands what I MEAN to say, not just what I do say.  Take for example, my recent bragging about my 3 year old grandson.

I told this friend that the boy had learned to read, and used for illustration the fact that he could read and write a number of random words and when presented with a new book, could pick out those words and ‘read’ them (it doesn’t work to try him on books he’s familiar with, he’s got those memorized).  I pointed out that reading is not sounding out every word, and that we must be able to recognize a word immediately on sight.  Many are familiar with the little test that has gone around the internet for some years, proving we aren’t quickly sounding out every word, but rather recognizing it on sight, and even then, with mostly only a few letters of the word.  For example:

Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at an Elingsh uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht frist and lsat ltteer is at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae we do not raed ervey lteter by it slef but the wrod as a wlohe.

I pointed out the child knows all his alphabet, can make the sounds associated with all letters, and recognizes on sight some 50 words, and can write at least 30 of them (the others he doesn’t always know how to spell).  Voila- a reading genius.  But he had me stumped when he asked if my grandson could sound out and then recognize a word he didn’t already know.  After thinking about it overnight, I came to the conclusion that my definition of reading must include both:  the ability to recognize certain words immediately on sight, and the ability to read new ones when they arise (and no, he can’t do that yet, so he’s not yet reading).

Even the simpliest words leave room for lots of misunderstanding.   It’s all about semantics. Semantics is not a little problem.  Not only can confusing the semantics frustrate understanding between individuals, between corporations, between governments, but for those people who like to have insight into themselves, it frustrates our understanding of ourselves.   Take for example, my most recent difficulty with the simple word “Happy.”

I read with interest Erich’s post: Are you happy?  I read this post at the end of a very frustrating day (week/month/year) when I was particularly stressed about my failure to reach a certain goal and the outside influences that prevented me reaching it.  I was so frustrated at what parts felt to be completely outside my control, and guilty about the parts I might have controlled better, that I had cried, and was in a darn lousy mood.  Everyone was lucky I live alone!  But then I got into a discussion with another friend about what being happy meant.  I didn’t feel UNhappy at the time, although to hear me whining and complaining and trying hard not to cry, one would think I was miserably unhappy.   I wasn’t pleased with things, but I still had my place in the sun, so to speak.  Still had a decent apartment, good transportation to get there, a job I loved, family I love and that loves me and the list goes on and on.

I decided I wanted a word to describe how I felt underneath, even with all the frustrations of life.  I wanted a word that would include my dark visions- what I consider to be realistic negative outlooks (i.e. politicians will always be corrupt as long as we have the current campaign finance rules, children in this country are getting poorer and sicker while the rich get even richer, etc.) but still acknowledge that I am a very fortunate woman indeed. 

 I looked up the definition of the word ‘joy.’  Wikipedia defines it as: “an emotion of great happiness.”  I wasn’t very happy (pun intended) with the circular definition.  I wanted a word that described a state of inner serenity that one can possess despite the cares of the world, despite occasional unresolved conflicts with family, friends or professional associates, despite some unmet physical need (i.e. trying to pay my car insurance!).  I haven’t found it, but for now I’m going to use the word Joy.  “Joy” is especially meaningful to me because that is what I named my daughter many years ago.

So when I say “Joy,” I’m going to mean that despite the fact that I may be frustrated, that I may be angry, I may be sad, at some situation, even situations I can never change, like the deaths of people close to me, I have a deep inner satisfaction with my life, what I’ve done with it (mistakes and all), and wouldn’t trade it for another without the pain (like that really exists).

If anyone has another word that expresses this inner condition, I would love to hear it.  In the meantime, I wish you all great joy.


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Category: Friendships/relationships, Language, Meaning of Life, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

My life's goal is to make a difference; to help those stuck in the mire of poverty and ignorance. I am an advocate for those who cannot speak for themselves, whether from ignorance, from lack of eloquence or simple lack of opportunity.

Comments (2)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    Deb: I'm wondering if "eudaimonia" is, perhaps, a term that refers to the state of mind you are describing. Here are a few paragraphs from Wikipedia:

    Eudaimonia is a classical Greek word commonly translated as 'happiness'. Etymologically, it consists of the word "eu" ("good" or "well being") and "daimōn" ("spirit" or "minor deity", used by extension to mean one's lot or fortune). Although popular usage of the term happiness refers to a state of mind, related to joy or pleasure, eudaimonia rarely describes a state of mind, and the less subjective "human flourishing" is therefore often preferred as a translation . . .

    According to Aristotle, the hierarchy of human purposes aim at eudaimonia as the highest, most inclusive end. This is the end that everyone in fact aims at, and it is the only end towards which it is worth undertaking means. Eudaimonia is constituted, according to Aristotle, not by honor, or wealth, or power, but by rational activity in accordance with excellence over a complete life. Such activity manifests the virtues of character, including courage, honesty, pride, friendliness, and wittiness; the intellectual virtues, such as rationality in judgment; and it also includes non-sacrificial (i.e., mutually beneficial) friendships and scientific knowledge (knowledge of things that are fundamental and/or unchanging is the best).

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Deb: for the next time the world frustrates you, here is a good site to visit:

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