What’s In A Word?

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Random Banter

Words are complicated things, really. You wouldn’t think it; we simply write them, say them out loud or string them together as a means of communication. However, it’s not the words themselves that make any sense – our understanding of a word lies in the meaning to which it alludes. I fear that I’ve lost you.

Pick a word, any word. Now say it out loud. Say it out loud once again, but this time with complete disregard of its meaning. You are left with just a sound. Now, write that same word down on a piece of paper, or type it onto your computer screen. Look at the word you have written without reading it. All you see is a random compilation of squiggles and shapes. So there you have it; the spoken word becomes just a sound, and the written word merely an image. Say the following words out loud and ignore their meanings: teddy, squid, onomatopoeia, number, box. These sounds are funny, aren’t they? Now look at these words I’ve typed, again without reading them. How foreign and mysterious they become!

I must admit, these ideas aren’t completely my own. They belong to a dude called Ferdinand de Saussure who is responsible for our modern understanding of semiotics. (Now there’s a word I haven’t seen before!) Basically, Saussure explains that each and every word is a ‘sign’, and each of these ‘signs’ has a ‘signifier’ and a ‘signified’, whereby the signifier is the sound-image (the word itself), and the signified is the concept (the word’s one or more meanings). Say what?

Take the word ‘fairy’. The word fairy itself is the sound-image, but the sparkly little picture of a cute flying creature that appears in your mind is the concept. I studied French for a number of years at school. What a beautiful sounding language it is! Let’s consider the French word ‘poubelle’. Oh, how it sounds and tastes like thick, golden honey! Say it out loud; let the two glorious syllables roll from your tongue. Pou – belle. Want to know what poubelle means? Rubbish bin. No, I am not kidding. It makes zero sense to me, that such a beautiful sound-image has come to represent such an ugly concept. Words really are complicated, aren’t they? Having said that, if it wasn’t for words, I would have found it extremely challenging to communicate this idea.


The Author

My name is Emily and this is a place where I write about all of the things I love (and sometimes the things I don't love). These things I love include all sorts of people: strangers, friends and family alike. And writing of course! I've never liked giving descriptions of myself, so you'll have to read my random banter in order to get to know me.


  1. As an ESL teacher, I encounter some of what you have written about. My students look at words and sometimes make their own contexts. Sometimes they come up with the meaning, and sometimes they don’t.
    Also interesting, when they teach me something from their language–sometimes, they forget to give me any context, and I am left wondering what that word could possibly mean.
    Most interesting, when they teach me words they think are English, but really aren’t. My favourite is the Korean phrase, “eye shopping” which means window shopping. The first time I heard this, I got an image of a person shopping for eyes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’ve just reminded me of a mistake I once made in a French test many years ago where we had to translate different household items. I translated chest of drawers literally – I’ve long forgotten the French words but basically, I gave the word for the chest as a body part, followed by the word for drawers as in pants! At least it made my teacher giggle.


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