The Word is Not The Thing


Our language can be considered to be a mutual agreement between all people to use certain symbols and associated sounds to represent various things found in nature or to represent various abstract notions developed by the mind. The invention of language gives tremendous power to human beings. All advances in science and technology, engineering and medicine would not have been possible without the foundation of language.

As much as language helps in changing our environment, it is also the source of much misery, misunderstanding and suffering. Words can deceive and words can hurt. Words can influence masses of people and words can make people fight with each other. The root cause of all the problems caused by our language can be traced to Alfred Korzybski’s famous statement – The Word is not the Thing.

Let me explain with an example. The word “bulb” stands for the physical object, which is spherical in form made out of glass and contains a filament made of tungsten. When connected to an electrical outlet, it glows and gives off light. You, me and everyone else has agreed to call it a bulb. We could have agreed to call it by any other name but for some historical reason we have called it the bulb.

The physical bulb is not a static object because it is undergoing change all the time. The filament is wearing off and the glass is getting weaker. But the name remains the same. The word “bulb” does not change. Now most people when shown a bulb will say that it is a bulb whereas in reality there is only the agreement to call it a bulb. The physical object can break when dropped on the floor but the word “bulb” does not break.

In the case of the bulb, there is no problem. Most people would agree wholeheartedly that the word, which is the symbol, is not the real thing. But in many other instances, all of us confuse the two. We fuse the word and the thing together as if they were never separate. And this confusion leads to all the troubles.

Let me explain with another example. The word “communist” stands for a person who believes in a certain way of thinking, who has a certain ideology and has certain political convictions. Communism is generally associated with negative connotations. Now, suppose you come to know that Mr. X, your friendly neighbor, is a communist. You will automatically forget all the excellent qualities of Mr. X and starting being cautious in interacting with him.

This reaction is common in many other cases where the symbol is confused to be the thing. We salute the flag (a symbol) to show our respect to our country. We offer flowers to a statue (a symbol) in order to pray to God. We give a birthday card (a symbol) to express our love. We attach a lot of emotion to our symbols. So if someone burns the flag, we consider it as an attack on the country and if someone throws away the card, we consider it as an insult.

If we think about our reactions with a calm mind, we will discover that they are not warranted. However because of our habit, we continue to confuse the word for the thing.

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