logoOgden's Basic English

SEMANTICS: The nature of words and their meanings
Committee on Communications, Harvard University

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    This book owes its existence to the works of C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards, to whom I am also deeply grateful for very generous help and encouragement in this and other ventures. They must not, however, be blamed for anything I have done to their subject.
    I am indebted to the Payne Fund for help in many ways ; to Charlotte Tyler Siepmann and the Orthological Committee for permission to use the materials in Chapter Nine ; and to the authors and publishers who have allowed men, in my last chapter and in its appendix, to use passages from the following books.


    Every book worth reading is a meeting place. Some would call it a battleground : are the writer's ideas or the reader's preconceptions to survive? Others more shrewdly will think of a marriage : which characteristics will prevail in whatever conceptions ensue? This book is about this meeting of minds through words. It sketches the conditions of communication ; and so has to put the theory of Metaphor very much in the forefront. And of all the metaphors with which man has tried to picture the transmission of ideas, by far the best is that which too often lies dormant in the word "conceive" itself. If we think it through for enough we may come to wonder if this "metaphor" is not rather a theory awaiting development -- a concept which has yet to be born, as important perhaps as its long gestation in the human intellect might suggest.
    It is present in all talk of fertile ideas, seeds of thought, culture, and such. It recurs in Plato with a frequency and a frankness which embarrassed is nineteenth-century translators. It has haunted historian of ideas ever since. Perhaps today, with our increased knowledge of the detail of biological and intellectual inheritance, we are approaching a stage at which it would be further explored. When it is, the two sorts of conceivings are not likely to be found very different in complexity. As events in themselves they must be equally incomprehensible, but their dependencies upon other events -- through the contexts Mr. Walpole lucidly treats of -- seem similar.
    'We must, though, avoid one misunderstanding. The last words of my first paragraph might invite it. I am not talking here of "a conception in general" -- the sort of thing that is "in the air" or "in the tradition," as we say -- but of the individual coming into being of a capacity in the individual mind. This distinction is that between type and token explained by Mr. Walpole in Chapter Seven. The risk for the historian of ideas and for the genera] reader alike is that in all this he thinks of ideas as types, not as tokens of them. It is as types that our ideas make us acceptable or not in society. But it is by their quality or breeding as tokens formed in our minds that we are saved or lost.
    If we keep this conception of conception in view, we will be less ready to suppose that any idea can be new . its novelty will be in the combinations within it ; less ready to expect two men's ideas to be quite the same ; less ready to dream that an idea may be simply handed from one mind to another : it has to grow there under different conditions, more or less favorable ; less ready, again, to imagine that a word is a sort of cellophane container preserving a "content" intact -- the same content always. Ideas are organisms and do things : different things in different conditions. We are less ready, that is, to support such views on reflection, for in fact they are current as perhaps never before among persons of alleged education. Semantics is perhaps most compendiously described as the attempt to generate better notions on these points, and it may be worth asking why such an attempt should be needed today more than ever.
   Three reasons suggest themselves. First, the place of neatly-rounded-off scientific and technical "subjects" in our instruction. With elementary physics and chemistry, if anywhere, the above notions of ideas as static things to be imparted and applied as received seems reasonable. Technical vocabularies come as near as may be to a "one word-one idea" ideal. A view of language and thought which is partly true of these subjects has been spread to cover the rest. We are only now realizing what a poor instrument of general education this linguistic peculiarity makes them. They give little training in the most necessary arts of communication, through fluid and shifting words.
    Second might come the unprecedented modern scatter of school and college subjects. Most competent educators are at one on this. We have no common body of knowledge -- acquired and developed through words -- to serve as shared starting points, landmarks, and routes of maneuver (see Chapter Four below) in our attempts to understand one another. We have riot made the same mistakes together over the same pages or remedied them by the same means together. There is no guessing nowa-days what anyone may happen not to know ; what he therefore may be unable to understand.
    Thirdly, strict translation has been vanishing from our curricula. No other exercise with language will take its place. One of the promises of Basic English On which Mr. Walpole admirably insists is that such translation from one fonn of English into another -- with its double "incidence" on our language -- will, in good teachers' hands, fill this gap.
    But translation is no mere formal training in the general arts of verbal understanding and expression. It is the unique opportunity and device for intensive study. Its service to us in the past has largely been that it put great utterances of our tradition before us and kept them before us long enough for them to enter into a living connection with our thoughts, forcing us to explore them far enough to make them ours. Coleridge used to list casual reading among the great destroyers of intellects. There is no little reason to fear he was right.
    Now semantics -- to give yet another description of it -- is the rationale of translation. It explores theoretically all the problems which come up when we compare two ways of saying the same thing. When and how may they not he "saving the same thing"? It finds, inevitably, that in the formula both "saying" and "the same thing" are radically ambiguous. Its task is to see why they must he so and how to control, as well as we may, the resultant troubles. And its prime concern -- since our lives are limited -- is to help us with the most important things, with the words we use in saying them, typically with such a word as "important" What may "important" mean? And which are "the most important things"?
    The dictionary will send us on a long tour of such other words as "value," "good," "beautiful.," "necessary," "essential," "true," "existence," "nature," "God," "love," "soul," "knowledge," "right," and "duty." But the list of their most routine connections which enough work with the dictionary might give us would be no very great help to understanding unless we brought that understanding with us. In a modest way, bv knowing the English language -- to some degree -- we know these connections already and have some understanding. How may we get more? By consulting the best philosophers? Good, but the difficulty then is that we would have to learn to read them and of all writers they are the easiest to misread. Their pages are fuller than any others of invitations to semantic incompetence. They need in their reader a suppleness, an imaginative tolerance, a freedom and skill in shifting his assumptions and experimenting with varied viewpoints which nothing in our education today provides -- certainly not an ordinary course in philosophy. Without all this we find them violently at variance about the meanings they seem to give to all the words to which the dictionary article on "important" would lead us. And most modern philosophers are too busy accusing one another of misunderstanding them to have any attention to spare for us or our inquiries.
    It was this observation which prompted The Meaning of Meaning. It explains Mr. Ogden's and my preoccupation there with the mutual miscomprehension of philosophers. It explains, too, our hope that a habit of multiple definition and practice in English-English translation might make it easier to come to grips with questions -- such as "What makes what important?" -- which the traditional combativeness of philosophy was neglecting. To us, "meaning" itself was the supreme example, the very knot of the tangle, which was defeating and must, while it was disregarded, frustrate inquiry. Our suggested remedy -- though we preferred another name, then less limited -- was "semantics," a radical inquiry i11to the modes and causes of verbal misunderstanding. But, as Mr. Walpole wittily remarks, "this subject can he turned to very queer ends by people who already had a gleam in their eye before they met it." A publisher once told me that any book with the word "meaning" even once in its title gets a peculiar "fan mail." We did not foresee that we might encourage anyone to suppose that the great words, those with the most meanings of the most different orders, those therefore most in need of study, were to be dismissed as without meaning. Bentham's handy label, "Fictions," may have been a mistake in tactics. "Some enthusiasts," writes Mr. Walpole, "suggest throwing them away. I would like to see them try -- they might as well try to split atoms with bows and arrows!" The great words are indeed as indispensable to intellectual analysis as atoms are in physics and as fundamental to intellectual order. If we can go inside them that does not discredit them -- rather the reverse. But they are more important than this. If we distinguish emotive from referential modes of meaning (see Chapter Two) -- and there are many ways of doing this, suited to different purposes -- that is not to say that the emotive meanings are less necessary to us or can be dismissed as rhetoric or more suasion. For these emotive meanings have to do with, in fact Sustain, the order in our minds, an order not less essential to them than any contrasted referential order. They sustain the order of our purposes. Without that order reason and desire destroy one another. In Plato's figure, it is the whole soul -- not the intellect alone -- which has to be turned round toward the idea of the good if it is to see the truth. As Mr. Walpole well says, "Just as primitive words made us better than animals, these great words will make us better than ourselves" -- in the measure in which we rightly conceive their meanings.
    I said at the start that a book might be a battleground : will the writer's ideas or his reader's preconceptions win? Sometimes a passing season of the climate of opinion seems to decide that. Semantics in the modern guise developed in the aftermath of World War I. A disillusioned world found in it hints for discrediting further the very things which it was already betraying. A generation was taught only to suspect whole ranges of language it had never studied, and these the most important to its well- being. "Emotive language" became something to be looked down upon by these naive sophisticates, and the moral structure of the general purposes seemed to be failing apart. There were many causes for this -- chief among them, perhaps, a crude economic determinism. Some of those who noted what was happening blamed a "materialism " of which they thought semantics was an outcome. I think they were doubly wrong. Neither materialism nor any other ism is a necessary foundation for, or result of, semantics. Its aim and outcome should be the fuller understanding of all the doctrines -- often so different -- hidden beneath these large, stultifying, philosophic names. And, again, no great doctrine -- well understood -- destroys the moral order. Badly understood, any doctrine will : witness the materialism of Stalin and the idealism of Mussolini. What is most to be feared is general inability to understand any of the great words in any but their lowlier uses. And it is from that rising threat that semantics would chiefly guard us.
    I commend this book as an introduction to its pursuit and as a very timely corrective of such misconceptions. Above all, I commend it for its insistence on the tentative exploratory nature of the study. Writings on semantics must share with philosophy preeminent dangers of being misunderstood. They are hard precisely because so many possible readings claim the use of their words. Mr. Walpole is too good a teacher to be surprised if, here and there, readers accuse him of thinking exactly what he was telling them not to think. Let them read on and remember that their gain is in the processes to which they are stirred, not in any product that could be served to them.

Ivor Armstrong Richards


SEMANTICS, or semasiology, is the study of the meanings of words. ***
    *** 14 pages ***


A Better Definition of "Semantics"

The Usefulness of Semantics

Chief Points

    Semantics is interested in the senses of words, and is of general value because it gives a better knowledge of what one is doing every time one makes use of language. It may best be looked upon, not as a complete science, but as a body of questions touching upon the connections between language and thought. By guiding one through these question of theory, it gives a knowledge which may be put to use and which will have as its outcome clearer thought, better writing, and sharper reading.

Practice Exercises

    *** 3 pages ***


SOME years ago a dog team set out from somewhere to carry diphtheria antitoxin to Nome, Alaska. ***
    *** 20 pages ***

Emotive Language and Propaganda

Three Aspects of Emotive Language

Echoes of Sound and Sentiment

Chief Points

    There are two different used of language, and it is necessary to keep them separate in our minds ; the Emotive use and the Referential use. this book is chiefly interested in the referential language of work, business, science, and discussion.
    Every example of language, in writing or in talk, may be viewed from four different angles, the reader or hearer looking in turn at its Sense, its Feeling, its Tone, and its Intention. Though to some degree all four are normally present in every statement, Feeling and Tone are specially important in poetry, and Intention in propaganda. Poetry is of great value in putting our feelings in order and giving us a healthy frame of mind.

Practice Exercises

    *** 4 pages ***


HAVING distinguished in the previous chapter between referential and emotive language, and having noted the dangers of using this distinction too freely, our next task is to see how language becomes "referential" ; that is, how it comes to have Sense (Function 1). ***
    *** 13 pages ***

To Be Affected Is To Interpret

Content, Organism, Sign

Chief Points

    Seeing, hearing, and learning are complex processes. Science at the present time is able to give us knowledge in some detail of the different states by which outside things get in touch with our minds. What our brain sees is not the thing we are "looking at," but the changes in our eyes of which that thing is the cause. If we keep this order of events in mind, we are in less danger of error.
    Learning in an animal's (or a man's) reaction to Signs. A Sign is a part of an experience, that part which, coming back to the animal's attention, has the same effect as the complete experience had in the past.

Practice Exercises

    I . Describe in terms of signs and contexts how a child might learn these words : label , affect , merry .
    II. Describe in similar terms how a human being sees and recognizes a chair. What is the sign? Can such a sign be false?


A SYMBOL is a word ***
    *** 26 pages ***

Chief Points

    Words are Signs, and healthy words are Symbols. A symbol is an outstretched finger pointing to a Referent. Words have in great part been responsible for the increase in man's control over things about him. But man is frequently overcome by his words. This is because not one of us is completely free from the error of looking on words as if they had a separate existence, with strange powers of acting by themselves. We are in far less danger of making this error if we keep clearly before our minds the order of the three parts of this chain : Referent -- Thought -- Symbol.

Practice Exercises

    I . Draw a rough Triangle of Reference for the symbol chair. Compare it with the diagram on page 81--especially the base of your Triangle.
    II . Make a short list of words which in your experience are very frequently misused.
    III. Write down a few words which you yourself have trouble in using adequately.
    IV . Start a file or a notebook in which to collect examples from your reading of different uses of the words in the two lists mentioned above ; before long you will have examples of all their chief uses and be able to see which kinds of meaning-shift render them troublesome.


A SYMBOL can have no meaning apart from its context. When we follow up this assertion we become ***
    *** 13 pages ***

Contexts at Work


First Version

Second Version

Three Types of Contexts

The Receding Referent

Chief Points

    The Context of anything is the field in which it has its place. There are three different sorts of contexts ; of words, thoughts, and things ; but every context has connections with other sorts.
    When using language, we never give all the details of the things we are talking about. Our words are dependent for their full effect upon our hearer's knowledge of the context. So it is clear that there is no such thing as "the right word," of making a certain statement.

Practice Exercises

    *** 2 pages ***


LOGICIANS do not agree on the definition of "definitions." ***
    *** 17 pages ***

Analysis of a Journey

Twenty-five Definition Routes

Chief Points

    When you are talking to someone about the best way for him to get from one part of town to another, it is necessary first of all to get agreement on two points Then it is possible to give him a clear account of the road to take.
    "Definition" is nothing more or less than the use of a certain road to take your hearer from a common referent to one which is new to him. The number of such roads is limited -- in other words, our minds are able to make connections between one thought and another in only a limited number of ways. These ways may be listed ; and the knowledge and conscious use of them will be seen to be of great value for the exchange of ideas.

Practice Exercises

    *** 2 pages ***


JUST before the World War a German scholar published a book called The Philosophy of As If. The German in the street, if he heard of the book at all, was probably just tickled by the title. But it angered many philosophers, for its main argument took the line that most of the things we talk and think about do not really exist and in our hearts we know they have no existence ; they are used as metaphors.
    *** 16 pages ***

We Speak and Think in Metaphors

Obvious Shifts of Meaning

The Mechanics of Metaphor

Tenor and Vehicle

Chief Points

    A metaphor is the comparison, in one word, of two things from different fields of experience. In the statement "That girl is a cat," the word "cat" is a metaphor. In this, as in every metaphor, there are two parts : the Tenor and the Vehicle. The Tenor in this example is a cruel, ill-humored young woman ; the Vehicle, a cruel, ill-humored animal (though this is a false thing to say about cats). It is very important to see the connection between the way in which we make use of a metaphor and the way we make use of any general name.

Practice Exercises

    *** 1 page ***


THE man on the street corner who says there "ain't no justice" speaks more truly than he knows. There has never been any such thing. Justice is a Fiction, along with its fellow -- Friendship, Discipline, Democracy, Liberty, Socialism, Isolationism, and Appeasement. You cannot point to their referents. It is hard even to describe what is meant by them, unless one takes the course of substituting one Fiction for another. Should all such words be "sent to the doghouse"?
    *** 19 pages ***

Headaches for Semanticians


The Bogeys of Bentham

Gyps, Guesses, and Ghosts

Chief Points

   The earlier parts of this book have made it clear how necessary it is to take into account the Context of a word. Looking at a Symbol by itself is frequently the cause of serious error.
    However, in the English language there is an increasing tendency for every word to be pinned onto some separate bit of experience, and to get some sort of general sense which may be looked at independently.
    Among the different sorts of Symbols, those which seem to have the strongest separate existence are our "nouns"--the names of things. Men and women and cats and pigs and houses are units in themselves. but a great number of our "names of things" are false names, because they have no things at the back of them. Truth, Goodness, Beauty, Attention, Control are examples of such words. They are the names of Fictions.
    There are two rules which make us able to put Fictions to work without letting them get out of control.

Practice Exercises

    I . Write down twenty abstract nouns expressing what you take to be the root sense of the following prepositions : about, across, after, against, among, at, before, between, by, down, from, in of, on, over, through, to, under, up, with.
    II . Draw archetypes for the twenty abstract nouns of I.
    III. Collect different uses of each of the following adjectives : beautiful, democratic, equal, free, good, just, reasonable, true.
    IV . Translate the eight adjectives of III into nouns, and describe in words simple concrete situations which would illustrate the root senses of your eight nouns.
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LISTS of best books mean nothing vital to the average reader, and there are no rules of thumb or charts of instructions on what to do with "a book" in general that cannot be improved upon by the average reader himself, individually. To read a book well is to ask the right questions about it ; and it seems obvious that the same prescribed questions will not do every time. The right questions are those which arise from the special nature of the particular book or which grow out of the one reader's own mind.
    *** 4 pages ***

The Delayed Response


    *** 27 pages ***

Practice Exercises

    *** 13 pages ***

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