Words are meaningless.

A word isn’t a thing. It’s only a label for a collective set of impressions. It can only, at best, convey to the listener the impressions they have. Now, when you’re introducing a new thing to someone you tell them the word, right? You name it.


If you’ve never seen water you have no clue what that is. It’s an empty container of an idea. So whoever said it will try to explain. Water is like this thing, and kind of like that other thing and it has properties such as X, Y, and Z but those simply work around the issue. They give a set of impressions that aren’t really there.

Because when you see water, experience it, then you understand it. You can see for yourself how it is and is not aligned with those things you were told. Suddenly you have your own impressions of what water is and now when you hear the word that is what you will bring up in your mind. So when someone else who has never seen water asks you fall into the same trap.

Which can become a problem when you’re telling a story about things that don’t exist, say. All you can do is build your models, your containers, and construct a building of ideas that stack in such a way as to hopefully convey your intended meaning to the listener. Which won’t ever work fully, but that’s part of the fun.

If I say the word “dragon” to you, you will pull up whatever concepts of dragons you have in your head from other stories. All the way back to the first time you heard about dragons, that idea has shifted and grown and changed. But I don’t know how. Maybe all the dragons you’ve dealt with in your mind have been friendly, maybe none of them have. So I can build up what the dragons I am talking about are like and you’ll adjust, somewhat, and layer that onto what you have.

But it’ll never have the richness and depth of hearing the word “dog” or “cat” or “horse.” And yet because it is a container that can not be filled by existing reality is can actually end far stronger in your mind.

When a dog behaves some way in front of you, you can not deny it. It is there. That adds to your subset of “dog.” When I say a dragon does X and behaves like Y, your idea of dragon is already set in your mind and you can not accept it, if you want. There is no nominal reality basis for that container so you can fill it with whatever you want and who am I to point and go “That’s wrong”?

A talking dog in a story is strange. You can do it but it instantly stands out as “Not normal.” A talking dragon? Eh, depends on who you tell the story to how strange they find it.

And so words are meaningless in a lot of ways. They shuffle toward tapping into a stream of reality we each carry with us, but they are never that stream itself. They can’t be. And I don’t think it is until you truly realize that, that you can really convey what you mean to with them. Knowing how they don’t work allows you to see what they actually do and how to work with them.

Because it isn’t as simple as “The dog ran after the cat.” Even though maybe it should be. That dog, the way it runs, the cat, all of it, whatever you picture, is yours, not mine. And I can get more specific:

The fat collie galumphed after the slender orange tabby.

Ugly sentence, I admit, but still it gives you a sharper focus toward what I am groping for. But the way their feet roll against the floor with each step, that’s in your head based on things you’ve seen. The smell, the sound of it, whatever I don’t tell you, you fill in. And I can’t control how.

Which is where it all comes together. What you leave out is as important as what you fill in. Words themselves are meaningless, but conveying information isn’t. And not conveying information to allow people to fill in the side notes is also far from meaningless.

You need both sides of that coin to be able to control your hand when telling a story. You need to be able to dip into experience and control the mind’s eye as best you can, and to overall create a structure full of holes exactly where, and only where, you mean them. Even though at best it is a map of a map and never the information itself.

Remember that. The best you can do is relate something and have people relate to it. You can not insist or force the way someone takes a story, you can not hammer it into pegs because you want to. You have to make things relate across gaps and lay those gaps carefully and then just see how people take it. When they take it an utterly different way than you meant chances are you either did something wrong, or it is a perfectly valid concept of how to take that story. 99% of the time is isn’t “The listener got it.” Demanding they did is never pretty.

Choose your words, and lack of words, carefully. Even if they are meaningless, the stories you build with them don’t have to be.

Published by

Adam P. Knave

Eisner and Harvey award winning editor, writer and tired person. Novelist, comic writer, cat owner, NY'er.

6 thoughts on “Words are meaningless.”

  1. Like a baby. Sorry, this hit me as I was driving back from lunch. Imagine a baby can understand words, but still has no life experience. How do you describe something to someone who has never experienced ANYTHING before? That’s why everything to a baby is amazing and frightening and awe inspiring. And also, apparently, worth a taste.

  2. Came over from 5*Friday.
    I like “tapping into a stream of reality.”

    One of the cool things about being a mom, I’ve found, is laying down some of those concepts with a child from scratch. They experience a basic concept, then branch out with more detail and nuance. Or something big happens and that concept is overwhelmed with that particular experience. I try to give my daughter lots of interesting concepts/experiences, trying to anticipate which will be most useful to her. Sometimes I seize the teachable moment. Sometimes I am caught woefully underprepared. I can handle squirting cats and ants when they’ve been bad, and “let me clean your nose,” but how am I ever going to explain homeless people panhandling at highway exits?

    And sometimes a listener never gets it. Maybe their concept of reality skews everything they see. I know friends and relatives who will always see the world very differently than the people around them. Building bridges across those yawning gaps can be exhausting.

    Lots to think about here. Thanks!

  3. “Maybe their concept of reality skews everything they see. ” Everyone’s does. Remember you don’t see things the way THEY do either and they don’t get why.

  4. I’ve never thought of choosing the words I don’t use carefully – but you make me think, good sir.

    I always figured that writing was like painting – you chose the colors and the images as you would want them, and everyone else looks at it with differing degrees of criticism/insight.

    Painting purple sunflowers that follow the moon may mean different things to different people, but I wonder how much is a shared common experience.

    How many ways are there to spell L-O-V-E? I’m so torn right now between our interconnectedness and the uniqueness of our worldviews.

    I’m going to pour a glass of wine and read through this again. Thanks, Adam!

  5. Yeah you have to learn to think in temrs of both at the same time and then do what you want, anyway. *laugh*

Leave a Reply