Words Are Meaningless

Okay, okay, so maybe the title is an exaggeration. After all, I am conveying these ideas to you through words. So they can’t be totally meaningless. But this is still a fun thought experiment, and one that might be able to help you in your own writing. 

In order to think about the phrase, “Words Are Meaningless”, we need to define “meaning”. This is a word that philosophers have been arguing about for centuries. Just like any twenty-year-old writer with no experience, I like to think myself a brilliant philosopher, and I have the perfect answer. 

Haha, no, only joking. I have no idea. But a good working definition might sound something like: “giving real-world consequence to an abstract idea.” Words are abstract ideas; what they mean, what real-world thing they concern, is what allows them to be useful tools. 

With that very rough definition in mind, I’d like to consider a classic example of words being meaningless. In many creative writing classes or workshops, the teacher will talk about word choice. And often, they will show two phrases. 

“Cottage in the woods.”

“Cabin in the forest.”

These two phrases mean the same thing. Yet the connotation, the image they bring to mind, is completely different. Cottages are associated with cute homes and white lace, woods are associated with airy sunlight and gentle greens. On the other hand, cabins are dark and falling apart, forests are tangled and overgrown. 

In this example, the dictionary definition of the words is useless when compared to the connotation of the words. Yet connotation is an undefined, societal thing. It requires an individual to have experienced these words before. Somebody who doesn’t read a lot of horror novels or someone who speaks a different language would think these sentences mean the same thing. 

Extrapolating from this, I think it can be argued that all words only have meaning in so far as they relate to personal experience. The word “blizzard” might conjure up images of horrible suffering to someone from Florida. But for me, born and bred in New England, it’s just a Tuesday. The meaning of the word “blizzard” depends on the individual’s understanding. The meaning of every word depends on the individual’s understanding. 

This can be a useful tool in your own writing. To give a personal example, the other day I found myself needing to describe a character moving really fast. I tried a bunch of words. Ran. Sprinted. Dashed. None of them gave the visceral image of raw speed that I was trying to conjure. 

Then I tried the word “wicked”. Not as in, wicked cool, but wicked as in to absorb or drain away fluid, like the wick of a candle. The word “wicked” does not, by any stretch, mean to move very fast. But I enjoyed the way the sentence sounded. 

“He wicked forwards.”

To me, at least, the word wicked sounds like it moves fast. It comes fast out of the tongue, it has a hard consonant sound but it also sounds like a rush of wind. Yet it doesn’t mean “fast” in the slightest. 

It’s okay to use the wrong word. I think it adds edge and character, it adds your own specific personality and experience to a sentence. It contributes to a strong, powerful voice. And it’s okay if definition doesn’t match meaning. Because, after all, words are meaningless. 

They only mean something to you.