Disquisition on general semantics

Who tricks, misleads, defrauds and lies to you, how and why.

Disquisition on general semantics

Postby meteorite » Sun Feb 12, 2012 6:27 pm

Man, doesn't that title look fascinating? Really inspire you to dig in and read? What? You find it offputting? Why?

Well, actually, that's what many of the postings here will be about.

The title is just words - why do you find it so repugnant? Isn't one words as good as another? What's with you, anyway?

The simple truth is that words don't stand alone. They carry freight - connotations, if you will - that bring up subconscious images when they are read. The title here fairly screams "Heavyweight academic treatise - complicated - tedious - dull" and a dozen other pejoratives suggesting some mental heavy lifting unlikely to be worth the effort.

But let's back off a minute here. Look at the title of this section. Fundamentally the most common tools used to deceive and manipulate people are words, and often but not always the method involves playing with denotations and connotation.

Let me offer an example. Of late when our increasingly secretive governments have to respond to Freedom of Information requests they do so with redacted data. What is this "redacted" jazz? They are banking on the fact that you won't know; the word is unfamiliar. In Canada you might realize that "redacteur" is the French word for editor - but it shows no heritage connection with the ancient Roman office of Censor. Thus George H.W. Bush and his cronies were much into describing information as "redacted" (which carried little freight) rather than "censored" with its far more pejorative connotations. In short, the aim is to confuse you by playing with semantics. Notice that the denotative meaning of the two words is essentially the same - but the connotations are hugely different.

The person who first tried to bring the study of the connotations of words to organized attention was Alfred Korzybski, a Polish aristocrat assigned to duty in Washington during the first World War who found the place so much to his liking that he took out citizenship and stayed the rest of his life. His defined the study of words with both their denotations and connotations together as "general semantics" and wrote a book on his thesis titled "Science and sanity". Reading it is, to put it mildly, a bit of a challenge, For that matter, so is lifting it. :D

Recognizing this, a number of popularizers wrote their own books the explain what what Korzybski was saying. One of the earlier and most successful of these was Stuart Chase, among who many works on various aspects of the question I found "The tyranny of words" highly readable and enormously useful and informative. Another very clear and popular explanation is "Language in thought and action", written by Samual I. Hayakawa, a Canadian-born and educated academic who after a distinguished professorial career in the United States served a term as a Senator from California. Both books have endured and are recommended; an earlier posting here explains how to get them.

While they did not necessarily organize their thoughts in the manner of Korzybski, Chase or Hayakawa, writers have always been very aware of general semantics. Consider the little poem by Emily Dickinson:

COULD mortal lip divine
The undeveloped freight
Of a delivered syllable,
’T would crumble with the weight.

If you feel a bit sceptical about this, go read "1984" by "George Orwell", and especially the appendix on "Newspeak" It is a clear and straightforward explication of just how the connotations of words can be twisted and distorted to say one thing and mean another, often the exact opposite. If you find the dystopian novel too heavy, try his much lighter "Animal Farm", which also spells out much of the trade of political demagoguery. You may find it uncomfortably familiar.

I suspect this will have pressed the readers endurance to a temporary limit, so will break here for a rest.
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