Using Words – Professor Victor E. Hill IV, Thomas T. Read Professor of Mathematics, Emeritus


[Humpty Dumpty said,] “There’s glory for you!”

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’ ” Alice said.

Humpty Dumpy smiled contemptuously.  “Of course you don’t – till I tell you.  I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’ ”

“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’ ” Alice objected.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”[1]

Humpty Dumpty reflects the medieval concept of nominalism, the idea that universal terms do not refer to universal existences, but rather are little more than verbal sounds.  Thus he poses a problem for modern American English usage, notably but not exclusively in the academic setting, when some words are presumed to have detailed, but unspecified meanings that are universally agreed upon.  How easy it is for a person to assume that everyone else understands a word, especially one with high emotional overtones, in precisely the same way!  Indeed, to back up to childhood, the playground complaint “That’s not fair!” is assumed to attribute an unambiguous meaning to the simple syllable fair.  And anyone who has survived childhood relatively unscathed knows that the playground group may have quite a variety of interpretations of fairness, usually based on what is advantageous to the individual speakers.  The same children, reaching adulthood, may carry a similar notion of unequivocal clarity into more adult words such as justice, and much vitriol may ensue when non-congruent tacit interpretations of justice are held by the participants in a conversation or a discussion.

During the recent lecture and discussion with Jonah Goldberg sponsored by “Uncomfortable Learning,” the term social justice was raised with all good will and seemingly with the thought that everyone present understood what was meant just as clearly as the word fair would have been understood by much younger persons.  Mr. Goldberg replied that F.A. Hayek pointed out that the term is flexible in its usage and impossible to pin down as to meaning; indeed, Hayek wrote, “I am certain nothing has done so much to destroy the juridical safeguards of individual freedom as the striving after the mirage of social justice.”[2]  Without question, a person of integrity will have in mind some reasonable list of attributes of what should constitute social justice, but is it – yes, fair – to suppose that those very same attributes are universally attached to the word?  One difficulty in providing specifics for a favorable-sounding term is that the specificity may reveal some details that readers or hearers may consider irresponsible or even repugnant.  The phrase social justice does not even appear in my favorite dictionary, and the definition there of justice consists of some terms arguably equal to that word in abstraction level.

Yet we do use words like justice (or fair) in everyday discourse, often with the notion that our hearers presumably share our interpretations thereof.  Even fictional characters may resort to a supposed universalism of interpretation.  In one tale the secondary victims of a kidnapping-murder in which the perpetrator got off free through a legal technicality take the law into their own hands and arrange a joint project in which they collectively murder the original criminal, leading to the exchange

“You do not believe in doing your utmost to defend the ends of justice?”

“In this case I consider that justice – strict justice – has been done.”[3]

The first speaker displays a notably high, somewhat abstract notion of justice, while the second is using the word more in the sense of retribution or vengeance, of settling an account.

These illustrations lead to a further matter of connotation and denotation of some of the words we use – especially those having a high emotional charge.  Decades ago, the semanticist S.I. Hayakawa (1906-1992) pointed out the danger that such words have of falling into a state of near meaninglessness.  He coined the terms snarl-words and purr-words[4] for terms that allow humans to growl like dogs or to wag imaginary tails.  His example of a purr-word is too dated to use here, but a contemporary example would surely be Humpty Dumpty’s word “nice,” a word that has for almost all purposes lost its denotation and is merely an utterance of unspecified approval.  One of Hayakawa’s first examples of a snarl-word (the term can refer to a phrase as well as to a single word) is, “The filthy scum!”  Not all of his examples sound entirely quaint in the year 2014; he offers “Reds,” “greedy monopolists,” “Wall Street,” “radicals,” and “foreign ideologies.”  While these terms have dictionary definitions, they often are reduced to mere invectives thrown at another person as if to say, “What I hate, I hate very much, and you have expressed it.”  Words like “elitist,” “socialist,” “fascist,” and “anarchist” may be used in a denotative way, but they may also be flung out merely to express contempt – or sometimes mere disagreement.  Racism is both real and contemptible in our day, but using racist as a mere snarl-word diminishes the power of the word to designate speech or behavior that is truly unacceptable in our society.  Choose any snarl-word A that you like and any political or social position B that you please, and the dictionary definition of A can be augmented by, “A is a term used by B’s to concede an argument or to terminate a discussion.”

The thrust of Hayakawa’s argument is to distinguish between judgment and report.  Snarl-words and purr-words express disapproval (or rejection) and approbation, but do not report any of the reasons for the judgment.  All of us will use individual words in either their connotative or their denotative sense; the point is to distinguish between the usages and to preserve the power of the denotation by employing the connotative usage rarely and judiciously.  As another semanticist noted, “It is one thing if people move from argumentation to name-calling; it is another to be unable to tell the difference.”[5]


Thus in open and frank discussions, speakers need to remember that terms like justice or simple justice or social justice or even fairness are more effective if they are qualified by some specificity as to the speaker’s understanding of the words, just as Humpty Dumpty told Alice what he meant by the word glory (idiosyncratic though that was).  The more closely this specificity conforms to widely understood denotations (rather than to any personal or group agenda) the more effective the communication will be.  Further, and especially in areas where feelings run high such as politics or social activity, when speakers avoid purr-words and, even more, adjure snarl-words, making the effort to report rather than to judge, ideas will be better understood and vastly more persuasive.  Both of these points were summarized – nicely, to give employment to a purr-word – in a musical journal, of all places, in the comment, “A social contract attaches to words: if we don’t use them correctly, we may as well be talking to ourselves.”[6]


[1] Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, Chapter 6.

[2] F.A. Hayek, Economic Freedom and Representative Government (1973), quoted in Jonah Goldberg, The Tyranny of Clichés, Sentinel (2012), page 131.

[3] Agatha Christie, Murder on the Orient Express, Part III, Chapter 5.

[4] S.I. Hayakawa, Language and Thought in Action, Harcourt Brace (1949), pages 44-46.

[5] Noah Jonathan Jacobs, Naming-Day in Eden, revised edition, Macmillan (1969).

[6] James M. Keller, “Word Imperfect,” in Opera News, December 2011, pages 39-41.

3 thoughts on “Using Words – Professor Victor E. Hill IV, Thomas T. Read Professor of Mathematics, Emeritus

  1. Footnotes! Citations! Thank you! A respectful acknowledgement of those to whom you listened and learned, whether you agreed with them or not. This is an example of “walking the walk,” enacting the listening and respect for others’ voices that we (this site, the Wms Record, the WSJ) call for but so rarely follow through on. Footnotes are thank you cards to those who made you think. Thank you, Victor Hill, for sending them.

  2. A belated (I just discovered W/A) hats-off to Victor Hill for such a thoughtful essay. “Social justice” is one of those terms that cries out for clarification. On its own, it’s an empty feel-good term — who could possibly be against it? — but in order to have a meaningful conversation it needs to be translated into something more specific (more progressive taxation? strengthening the Voting Rights Act?).

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