Meaning of Meaning…


I talk about meaning. 


Yes.. I know… and I have long talked about it.  I talked about it ages ago on LJ where I contrasted “meaning” with “truth,” and noted that the two seemed to be mostly independent variables of each other–i.e. that something could be meaningful while not being true… For example–a story could be deeply meaningful and fictional also…

In any case–this is not a new question and much better minds than mine have tackled this question of the meaning of meaning… but they were after something different than what I seek…. as they were interested in how the concept of meaning itself was constituted–or how could it be formulated in a highly theoretical and consistent manner… and that’s all well and good… it’ a worthy undertaking…

But I’m more interested in the more commonplace understanding of “meaning”–i.e. what makes something “meaningful” to a human…

Now.. there are lots of religious folk who will bring up supernatural entities as the source of meaning and truth for them–and that’s all well and good for them.. but that doesn’t carry any weight with me..

Of course, that could be because I am an agnostic atheist, but there is something deeper than that… because even when I was little and people had tried to make me think there was a sky fairy that created everything… it never crossed my mind to think that what I found important had anything to do with him…

So again–what does make something meaningful?

In my opinion–and at my core–I strongly believe that the way things acquire meaning is pretty simple.. namely it is summed up in this nice image….

In other words–the question of who gives meaning to life for me is simple–we do.

But how do we decide?  What goes into making something meaningful for us… and here is where my thoughts relate to a recent post of mine… namely, is something meaningful because we find it valuable or worthy?   If so–is it valuable because we wield it or it has power as I noted in that post?  Or is it worthwhile because it is tied to an external object that we have formed a relationship to in some manner?

These are the thoughts in my head.. and as usual… I tend to think about the root meanings of the word itself..

What does the term “meaning” mean?  Where did it come from?

Well.. looking it up using my favorite online etymological dictionary, the term “meaning,” comes from the verb “to mean,” which originally meant, in English,  “to mean, tell, say, complain.” This verb is clearly related to the German verb “meinen” which means “to think, suppose, be of the opinion,” and both of them from from an Indoeuropean root *meino- that meant “opinion/intent”….

Thus.. the original sense of “meaning” came from the idea that you had an opinion about something… and–in English–that you had something to say about it…

Thus.. “meaning” comes from having an opinion..  and an opinion is nothing more than an idea that we we choose to believe.

Thus–the notion that we assign “meaning” to things rather than just acquiring it from somewhere else..that is rooted in the core meaning of the word itself …in English….

But what about other languages?  I brought up German for comparison and can speak it.. so what about there????
Here, I will note that in German, the word for “meaning” comes from a different source… Germans don’t use “meinen” as the root of their term for “meaning”–instead they use the verb “deuten,”==”to signify, explain, show,” which becomes “bedeuten”==to mean…

Now.. the root of “deuten” is the same as the word the Germans use to label their nationality–namely “Deutsch” and it comes from root words–theod-isc—meaning “belonging to the people”

Now.. from that root meaning– the verb “deuten” originally meant “to explain (to the gathered folk)/to make understandable” and from that, they added the prefix “be-” that comes from the adverb/preposition “bei” (related to our English preposition “by”) and which basically means “around, near”….

Thus–meaning in German came from an idea that meant something on the order of “being near the explanation to the people”… or “around the process of common understanding”…

What interests me here are two things…

First–this German idea of “meaning” is still something that is done by humans.

However–Second–this choice for “meaning” in German comes from a much more communal sense of opinion than any one person’s opinion, and it involves the idea of understanding or explanation of something rather than just one particular person’s idea or belief about something…. Additionally, there is a kind of causal connection in this German idea of “meaning” (it must make sense and be understandable…) that does not exist in the English etymology…


This is why I like knowing the history of words.. of knowing their origins and meaning.. because if you dig deep enough and search beyond your own tongue, you can really see how humans–both individually and in groups–have tried to make sense of their world using the mental and physical tools available to them… and how they found and created meaning in doing so….


About Prof. Woland

I contain multitudes. Come meet us.
This entry was posted in Linguistics and Languages, Meaning and Philosophy and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s