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  Words Are Not Ideas

Words Are Ideas

The basic idea here is simple: every word contains a meme, that is, an idea or concept. I understood this all at once some time ago, and am convinced it is a fact, but I'm not sure I can explain or prove it. That won't stop me from trying, however.

Suppose you've just invented a strange new contraption, a rod with folding spines and a piece of cloth attached, that can be used to keep off the rain. You make them for all your friends, and they talk about them with one another: “You don't have one of those rain contraptions handy, do you? You know, one of those folding thingies so-and-so invented?” Clearly there is a concept they are trying to express, there just isn't a word for it, until one day someone picks one: umbrella.

You can also see from this example that the converse of the basic idea isn't quite true—not every meme has an associated word, but those that don't are awkward to deal with.

This whole thing strikes me as an important and fundamental idea, so that it must have been known in antiquity, but I don't know its origin, and can't find many references to it. The best I could dig up in Familiar Quotations was this quote from Lavoisier's Traité Elémentaire de Chimie.

It is impossible to dissociate language from science or science from language, because every natural science always involves three things: the sequence of phenomena on which the science is based; the abstract concepts which call these phenomena to mind; and the words in which the concepts are expressed. To call forth a concept a word is needed; to portray a phenomenon, a concept is needed. All three mirror one and the same reality.

By the way, this example demonstrates what it is that makes Familiar Quotations so interesting to me—it can be used to trace the history and usage of words, and therefore of ideas as well.


  See Also

  Do Words Control Thought?
  Game I Used to Play, A
  Meaning of Liff, The
  On Graffiti
  Spoilers and Polluters
  Words Are Not Ideas
  Words Are Not Reality

@ March (2000)