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Word-Play: The Power of Semantics
Adam Blatner, M.D.

July 31, 2013

People fool themselves, and fool each other. The ancient art of rhetoric was one of the major elements in the curriculum in the Graeco-Roman culture over two thousand years ago. (The word "trivia" derived from the trivium, which involved the three subjects taught first in in medieval universities, namely: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. But these were by no means considered trivial. The art of persuasion was core!). They made use of various logical fallacies and social and interpersonal manipulations. Forms of self-deception are described on another webpage---identified by their psychological dynamics.

I was very taken with propaganda analysis and semantics as a teenager, and recently found this Peanuts cartoon reminded me of how a word or phrase can be used to make a given characteristic either a virtue or a fault.
Earlier on I found this in one of my favorite books by S. I. Hyakawa, a professor of English at San Francisco State University, and later a Senator. The book was "Language in Thought and Action."

Semantics is the study of how we understand the meanings of language, in terms of such phenomena as confusing levels of abstraction, the influence of the emotional connotations of words, etc. It's sort of a bridge between linguistics and psychology. Knowing something about semantics can be enormously helpful in trying to solve problems in communications. Publicists, "word spinners," advertisers, manipulators, all use this elusiveness of language to win the allegiance of the audience.


For example, it's often useful to know how to “reframe” a quality or an experience, to place it into a different frame of reference, by using different kinds of words. This is especially helpful in order to encourage others, to bring out strengths and possibilities. One way to develop the skill of playing with words so that you can say, as Lewis Carroll's version of Humpty Dumpty said, "I can make them mean anything I want to...it's just a matter of who is to be master, that's all." A game to practice with is what Bertrand Russell in the late 1940s "conjugating an irregular verb." The New Statesman magazine used Russell's idea as the theme of a contest and here are some of the entries:


I am sparkling. You are unusually talkative. He is drunk.


(The first person tense is always a complimentary way of describing a quality. The second person tense is a mildly critical dig, something you could say to a friend with whom you have some rivalrous or one‑upmanship motivations. The third person tense refers to that gossipy capacity to be quite negative with no need for any restraint.)


I am righteously indignant. You are annoyed. He is making a fuss about nothing.

I am a creative writer. You have a journalistic flair. He is a prosperous hack.

I am beautiful. You have quite good features. She isn't bad looking, if you like that type.

I daydream. You are an escapist. He ought to see a psychiatrist.

I have about me something of the subtle, haunting, mysterious fragrance of the Orient. You rather overdo it, dear. She stinks.


In fact, some people devalue themselves, and so they'll tend to describe themselves in a more critical light than necessary. Thus, the choice of tenses only illustrates the possible variations in how we choose and use our words.


Part of the benefit of this exercise is that it stimulates your imagination to discover the advantages and disadvantages of a given quality, or to picture the manner or context in which a behavior can be performed that would evoke either admiration or criticism from the observer. It is this shifting of perspective that increases the flexibility of mind, and it has many clinical implications.


Exercise: In the format of: "I am fastidious. You are fussy. He is an old woman," "Conjugate," in a similar way, the following statements:

            I have a lively imagination.

            I am slender.

            I believe in being frank.

            I don't dance very well.

            I rarely find time to read books.

            I am a trifle overweight.

            I don't care much about theories; I'm the practical type.

            I am optimistic.

            I'm just an old‑fashioned girl.

            I like a car that can move along at a good clip.

            I need plenty of sleep.

            Naturally I use a little makeup.

            Sometimes I lose my temper.

            I collect rare, old objects of art.

            I had my fling as a kid.

            I take advantage of opportunities.

            I refuse to conform to the ways of our society.

            I choose my friends carefully.

            I believe anything worth doing is worth doing right.

            I believe it is important to be well dressed.

            I enjoy an occasional social drink.

            I prefer casual clothes.

            I do my best to avoid a fight.

            I sometimes stretch the truth a little.



 The point to make is that words rarely actually mean anything. They can be modified, replaced by other words, phrased so as to emphasize this or that interpretation. The idea that definitions count, are official, and that this adequately manages the elusiveness of word meanings and semantics is itself illusory. Beware of words and how they're used. The lack of skepticism about this, the tendency to think that other people should agree with the meaning you think applies to a word, this is the cause of a great deal of social conflict.



Hyakawa, S.I. Language in thought and action.


Krupar, K.R. (1973). Communication games: A participant's manual. New York: The Free Press.


 For responses, email me at adam@blatner.com