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Thursday, 7 October 2010

What do I mean?


Love is just a word until someone comes along and gives it meaning – Anon.




What is meaning? It’s a word we use all the time. We just know what meaning means. Meaning means what something means. Not very helpful. What does the dictionary say?



1. Something that is conveyed or signified; sense or significance.

2. Something that one wishes to convey, especially by language: The writer's meaning was obscured by his convoluted prose.

3. An interpreted goal, intent, or end: "The central meaning of his pontificate is to restore papal authority" (Conor Cruise O'Brien).

4. Inner significance: "But who can comprehend the meaning of the voice of the city?" (O. Henry).

Meaning is something then that is conveyed, which means carried. Meaning is something carried. If it’s being carried then it must be being carried from A to B otherwise it’s just being held, surely. Language is the means by which that meaning is conveyed. But is it up to the task?

When I ask you what you mean am I really saying: “Have you said something significant?” Does that mean that insignificant things don’t possess meaning? And where’s the cut-off point? Also what is insignificant to me might be vitally important to you. I don’t care what time the first train to Edinburgh is tomorrow because I have no reason to go to Edinburgh but for someone planning a trip that could be a critical piece of data.

Meaning of Words Is meaning purely intellectual, the facts and figures? I don’t think so. Alexander Bryan Johnson proposed three classifications for nonverbal things: intellections, sensations and emotions. A word is something we experience. Let’s take the word ‘I’ – as in me, myself and – every one of us has a unique experience of what it is to be an individual. I stop at the end of my fingertips and at the end of my toes. I can look at my hand now and see where I end and not-I begins. But what if I were a Siamese twin? Where does I end and my sibling begin? And yet both will consider themselves individuals even if they share a number of organs. And what if I lose a limb or a hair off my head? Am I now less-than-I? I is not a fixed term.

What is a cat? A small carnivorous mammal of the genus Felis catus or Felis domesticus. That’s really not very helpful either. But we all know what a cat is. When I say the word ‘cat’ hands up how many think something along those lines? No, the odds are you will jump to a specific cat if you’re a cat person. With me it’s my late Mum’s late cat Tigger, not her only cat but the one I was fondest of. After that I start to process a lifetime’s experiences – intellections, sensations and emotions – and what I end up with is almost total nonverbal: a conglomeration of experiences that define the word ‘cat’ for me. I know what a cat is. The word ‘cat’ is a significant one in my life’s vocabulary.


v. sig·ni·fied, sig·ni·fy·ing, sig·ni·fies

1. To denote; mean.

2. To make known, as with a sign or word: signify one's intent.

Is a cat a sign or a symbol? Actually there’s more than just those two to worry about:

Something that stands for something else.

A graphical representation of a character or part of a character in a font. A carved figure or character.

Something that represents something else by association, resemblance, or convention. Something visible representing something invisible. A symbol can be imbued with rich layers of meanings.

An idol. An image or representation. A religious image in the Eastern Church. A small clickable image representing files or programs in a computer.

Words are signifiers:



1. One that signifies.

2. Linguistics: A linguistic unit or pattern, such as a succession of speech sounds, written symbols, or gestures, that conveys meaning; a linguistic sign. The signifier of the concept "tree" is, in English, the string of speech sounds (t), (r), and ( ); in German, (b), (ou), and (m).

They are also symbols:

[Middle English symbole, creed, from Old French, from Latin symbolum, token, mark, from Greek sumbolon, token for identification (by comparison with a counterpart): sun-, syn- + ballein, to throw; see gwel - in Indo-European roots.]

So words are a form of currency, an unusual one in that the units change value all the time. I mean how would that work in the real world if you went to by a car valued at £8000 and you hand over a cheque for £6500 because that’s what you think the thing should be worth?


This is as far as I’d got with this essay when I left off. I had a feeling I was starting to get out of my depth. And then I lily-allen-31 heard a song by Lily Allen and everything that follows kicked off from there.

Now, I’m not a great Lily Allen fan. I know who she is, she’s the daughter of the comedian Keith Allen, who I know but don’t ask me to name anything he’s done. Possibly a couple of charity singles with David Baddiel who I only know from charity singles although I’m sure he’s done other stuff too.

I think I heard the song during an episode of Being Human (a BBC3 series about a ghost, a werewolf and an on-the-wagon (for want of a better expression) vampire who share a flat and are doing their damndest to act as normal as possible. It’s basically a comedy but a very, very dark one). Anyway, I’m sure that during one of the scenes the background music was this song about someone being mean. I’d heard it before, once, in passing, and I thought it was dead catchy – not my usual fare – and so this morning, at about 3:30, I decided to look it up. It turns out the song is called ‘Not Fair’ and because I’m mean (I’ll explain that in a minute) here’s a video for you to have a look at and a listen to:

The reason I’m mean is that you’ll probably have this damn turn rattling round you head for the rest of the day. For which I apologise. But there are worse tunes to have stuck in your head.

Having identified the song I sat for a few minutes and tried to work out what it was that had caught my attention. Unusually I could remember most of the lyrics. I hadn’t really attributed any meaning to them. They were just words, something to go along with the tune. They could’ve been in Greek as far as I was concerned. I mention Greek specifically because yesterday I stumbled across a soundtrack to a Greek film during which someone sang a couple of pleasant – and utterly unintelligible – songs, one of which was also quite catchy although nowhere near as infectious as this thing. But there was one bit I couldn’t work out so – God! Isn’t Google wonderful? – I looked up the lyrics:

Oh he treats me with respect
He says he loves me all the time
He calls me 15 times a day
He likes to make sure that I'm fine

You know I've never met a man
Who's made me feel quite so secure
He's not like all them other boys
They're all so dumb and immature

There's just one thing that's getting in the way
When we go up to bed you're just no good
It’s such a shame
I look into your eyes I want to get to know you
And then you make this noise and its apparent it's all over

It's not fair
And I think you're really mean
I think you're really mean
I think you're really mean
Oh you're supposed to care
But you never make me scream
You never make me scream

Oh it's not fair
And it's really not ok
It's really not ok
It's really not ok
Oh you're supposed to care
But all you do is take
Yeah all you do is take

Oh I lie here in the wet patch
In the middle of the bed
I'm feeling pretty damn hard done by
I spent ages giving head

Then I remember all the nice things
That you ever said to me
Maybe I'm just overreacting
Maybe you're the one for me

It was that last stanza I’d not quite heard right. Ah! Typical me I can actually relate to the girl here. I’ve never been able to roll over and doze off right after sex. I have been dozed-off on however. The thing is, when I heard the song on the TV they didn’t play that bit, they focused on the “I think you’re really mean” section which went with the storyline. You see where I’m going with this: they – the TV people – changed the meaning of the song.

I decided, putting catchy lyrics to the side, that it was really the bass line that had piqued my interest and I started thinking about other songs with memorable bass lines. Which brought me to 1979. Or thereabouts. Nostalgia: in my novel Living with the Truth I call it “a sickness of the soul” and I pretty much stand by that definition. I’ve talked before about the fact that I don’t spend a lot of time wallowing in the past. Now I remember why. It’s painful. Even the good memories are painful. The band that came to mind, when I started thinking about great bass players, was Jean-Jacques Burnel from The Stranglers. I was a bit old to be a punk but even if punk had arrived in 1973 I would still have been on the sidelines. I agree totally, however, with what Bob Geldof said on the revived Juke Box Jury that punk was the enema the music industry needed at that time. I was gobsmacked the first time I heard the Sex Pistols but the band that really inspired me was The Stranglers and I still regard ‘No More Heroes’ as one of the best singles ever released. Ever! So, after Lily Allen, I rooted around in YouTube and ran across a video of ‘No More Heroes’ which led me to ‘Nice 'n' Sleazy’. I remember this 1978 Top of the Pops appearance as if it was yesterday:

Now, is that not a fantastic bass line? I used to own the Black and White album and goodness knows how many times I’ve listened to this song. Hundreds. But what is it about? Let’s see if the lyrics help:

We came across the west sea
We didn't have much idea of the
Kind of climate waiting
We used our hands for guidance
Like the children of a preacher
Like a dry tree seeking water
Or a daughter
Nice 'n' sleazy

Nice 'n' sleazy does it
Nice 'n' sleazy
Nice 'n' sleazy
Does it does it does it every time

Nice 'n' sleazy
Nice 'n' sleazy
Does it does it does it every time

Nice 'n' sleazy does it

Nice 'n' sleazy
Nice 'n' sleazy
Does it does it does it every time

Nice 'n' sleazy
Nice 'n' sleazy
Does it does it does it every time

Nice 'n' sleazy does it
An angel came from outside
Had no halo had no father
With a coat of many colours
He spoke of brothers many
Wine and women song a plenty
He began to write a chapter
In history
Nice 'n' sleazy

Nice 'n' sleazy does it
Nice 'n' sleazy does it
Nice 'n' sleazy does it
Does it every time

Again, unlike many pop songs, the lyrics are quite audible. So I know I knew them but I had never thought about their meaning before yesterday. I still have no idea what the song means. And yet, without a doubt the song means more to me than I realised because I actually teared-up listening to it. What is that all about? If you want to read some opinions as to the meaning of the words, click here.

I don’t have any words to explain what the song means to me because what it evokes is a sense of time and place, not a specific time and place but a time period and an area: the time, the late 1970s; the area, East Kilbride. I started looking up other groups from that timeframe (Tubeway Army, Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Blondie) and encountered much the same feeling.

I’ve written about meaning before, most importantly in this poem:


Writers are all liars. We all are.
But at least they are honest liars.

They write down those necessary lies,
the kind that move men to leaps of faith
or excuse us when we fail to jump.

In the end it doesn't matter that
they let us down in the cruellest ways.

August 18, 1996

This is a poem that means a lot to me (see, that ruddy word again) but I have no idea what I meant when I wrote it. I mean I know what it’s about, it’s about how we writers play fast and loose with the truth – it even contains an honest to goodness oxymoron just to show I can do them – but I don’t know what brought me to write those words. I know roughly were I was when I wrote it, in Glasgow I expect and living alone, but that’s about it. And yet the poem means everything to me because it got me a wife.

Perhaps I exaggerate. But it was the first step on the rung.

I had begun taking my first tentative steps onto the World Wide Web. I’d typed ‘poetry’ into a search engine – Lycos, lycos I think, pre-Google anyway – and suddenly a completely new world of experience was opened up to me. I discovered e-zines and started sending out my stuff and I discovered women. And not only women, but women poets. I’d read about such a think but I’d never spoken to one. And suddenly there were loads of them quite happy to exchange e-mails. Okay, three, but three was a lot.

And then one of them suggested I try an e-zine run by a lady with the name Carrie Berry. At the time I had only one poem on me – I was at work so God alone knows why I even had that one – and so that was what I sent her. And the rest, as they are so fond of saying, is history.

So you can see why that poem means a lot to me and yet what it means to me can’t be expressed in words. The words above don’t come anywhere near to saying it.

I get frustrated with poetry – and books and plays and all other kinds of art – when I can’t answer, or have answered, the question: What does it mean? I assume if I can’t answer that question that the work must be meaningless but that’s clearly not the case. Meaning is also not intrinsic to the work in question. We don’t read or look at art in a vacuum and all those other things have to be factored in when determining meaning. Once that meaning has been determined we can try and translate it into words to convey it to someone else but that is all it will be, a translation which, depending on how articulate we are at the times, may, or may not, be a poor translation; inevitably something will be lost along the way.

Language may well be a toolbox but meaning has less to do with design than you might imagine. Even in a soundproofed room no one ever reads in silence; we are never truly alone with the author’s words. We’re always there. I mean, think about the expression “alone with” – you’re either alone or with and if you’re alone you can’t be with. We impose a meaning on the words. In the quote that comes up in a minute we have the word ‘queer’ used correctly but that word has been retooled for a completely different use. We all get what I say when I say “alone with” but are you really listening to what I’m saying or are you relying on your previous experiences of the expression and assuming that’s what I meant. It is what I meant but you know what people say about assuming and I’m no one’s ass.

door Meaning is a point of view. A door can be an entrance or an exit depending on your point of view. It could also be locked. Meaning is not simply identity. I: the one identity we’re all familiar with (discounting Siamese twins for the moment), what if I wrote a poem and the opening line was, “I love you,” and that poem was published and someone copied it out and gave it to their girlfriend. I’d be upset if she turned up on my doorstep unless she was pretty and then my wife would be upset which would upset me so let’s not go there. The “I” in the poem is flexible. It might not even have meant me when I originally wrote it. I quite often write poems in the first person that are not about me or rooted in my own experience; poems are nowhere near as autobiographical as many people imagine. Writing in the first person is a way of putting a little gentle pressure on my readers to personally identify with the piece. It’s like the old salesman’s trick of taking whatever it is they’re trying to flog you and handing it to you so that you have to hand it back if you don’t want it. Possession feels like ownership and can easily become ownership. Meaning changes in an instant.

So what we have to accept is that meaning is dynamic. In Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein wrote this:

It becomes queer when we are led to think that the future development must in some way already be present in the act of grasping the use and yet isn’t present. – For we say that there isn’t any doubt that we understand the word, and on the other hand its meaning lies in its use. (Wittgenstein 1958, §197)

A shoe is not a hammer and yet have you ever tried to hammer with one? It’s not a very good one. A shoe is also not a missile but if you take one off and chuck it at someone it can be quite an effective one. Oh, you thought when I said ‘missile’ I meant ‘rocket’. Sorry. Perhaps I should have said ‘projectile’.

I think the way we cope with all of this is to do the same as many bi-lingual people do, people who have a ‘public’ language and a ‘private’ one, often the language of their parents. When I’m in public I call a spade a spade, particularly when playing bridge. It’s a signal that everyone playing the game understands. There is no possibility of confusion. In private I can see a spade and think of death. If I wrote a poem and someone was dealt the ace of spades that would mean something else.

Words precipitate meaning; they throw down a challenge, every one of them: here I am – you decide what I mean. Only rarely though does one word stand alone. They come in little bands, a sentence here and there, building up to whole armies of them in books. Not often do we have to deal with one word in isolation. His mates come along and help make his intention clear; clearer anyway, if not exactly crystal.

In my poem I deliberately used a poetic device, the oxymoron, where I take two contradictory elements and treat them as if they’re one. I can’t think of a bit of text more packed with them than this:

Alas, that love, whose view is muffled still,
Should, without eyes, see pathways to his will!
Where shall we dine? O me! What fray was here?
Yet tell me not, for I have heard it all.
Here's much to do with hate, but more with love.
Why, then, O brawling love! O loving hate!
O any thing, of nothing first create!
O heavy lightness! serious vanity!
Mis-shapen chaos of well-seeming forms!
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health!
Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!
This love feel I, that feel no love in this.
Dost thou not laugh?

Romeo and Juliet, Act I, Scene I

The purpose of the oxymoron is to expand meaning. “I see,” you say but what do you see? Not me. You’re looking at a computer screen. You mean you see my meaning but Screen that’s wrong too. You see the containers, the signifiers, of that meaning not the meaning itself; that is an abstract notion. Romeo ‘sees’ in a figurative sense. Were he blind he could still ‘see’. Insight does not require actual sight.

So why do we bother? Why have I bothered with all of this? Because no matter how fluid meaning is there is pleasure letting it pass through you. You can hold water in your hand; it’ll run through your fingers, and what little remains will evaporate. Yet we’re drawn to water in all its guises. It represents life. And we’re just passing through that. I think it’s best to treat meaning in much the same way. It’s something we come in contact all the time, we’re made up of meanings, some of which we hang onto and some of which try and escape when listening to an old Top of the Pops programme from the 1970s.



Which brings me back to Google. There was a time meaning was something that was contained within me. You‘d ask me to think about a cat and I would draw on my c-a-t lifetime’s experiences of cats. Nowadays, however, I’m rarely more than 20 feet from a computer and so I don’t try as hard as I might once have had to, to build up a picture of a cat. I can just type c-a-t into Google (my search engine of choice) and there! I have access to the world’s knowledge, well, some of it, which I can wade through to find what I’m looking for or to jog my actual memory. Fundamentally this makes me lean towards a communally agreed upon ‘meaning’, what most people jump to: meaning has become a kind of popularity competition. Google is like a word association test you have no control over. Has this made me lazy? I would have to say, yes it has. It has changed the meaning of ‘remembering’ – I don’t remember, I look up. But perhaps that’s a subject for another day.


Further Reading

Claudia Arrighi, Roberta Ferrario, ‘The dynamic nature of meaning’, Computing, Philosophy, and Cognition (London: [King’s] College Publications)

Terrence A. Brooks, The nature of meaning in the age of Google

Alex Scott, Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations

Lois Shawver, Commentary on Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations

Alexander Bryan Johnson, The meaning of words analysed into words and unverbal things


Art Durkee said...

For me the band that opened those doors and blew my mind was Shriekback. One of the greatest unsung bass players of all time, Dave Allen. The song that comes to mind when reading this post is "My Spine Is the Bassline."

There's a phrase from Tibetan Buddhism that I think applies to wordsmithing, especially poetry, when looking for meaning: "comfortable with uncertainty." That goes so far as to include the sort of viewer-dependent relativity: the observer's viewpoint even affects how time flows. Comfortable with uncertainty means, in part, being okay with not always knowing the meaning of something, or the outcome.

I strongly agree that this is not merely intellectual. I also agree that words often fail. If inability to uncover meaning in a poem means anything in the grand scheme of things though, it's probably not much.

Dave King said...

I've been the better part of two of my computer sessions trying to take in what must, I am sure, be an embryonic doctorate thesis. Don't get me wrong, that's not meant as a criticism, just a reflection on my declining mental powers. I'm going to need a third!

Maybe I'm over-complicating. I've always thought that the observation (on The Mona Lisa, I think) that it doesn't mean anything, it just has meaning, was the perfect escape hatch - until you start to think about what it means!

For now: I enjoyed the poem, and I think the phrase "Reader, please supply meaning" - or something like it - should be inscribed over every poem (art work?).

litrefs said...

"I've always thought that the observation (on The Mona Lisa, I think) that it doesn't mean anything, it just has meaning, was the perfect escape hatch" - Wittgenstein wrote "We speak of understanding a sentence in the sense in which it can be replaced by another which says the same; but also in the sense in which it cannot be replaced by any other", which is another way of making the "poems shouldn't mean, but be" distinction. It's worth pointing out that some works take a while before they can be discussed and "explained" - the reader-experiences and appropriate vocabulary need to be developed first.

Jim Murdoch said...

I had a listen to that track, Art. Not my usual cup of tea but the base line reminded me of another song from the seventies, a Japanese band believe it or not that I caught on The Old Grey Whistle Test which was the music show back then (forget Top of the Pops, seriously). The band was called The Sadistic Mika Band and the track was ‘Suki, Suki, Suki.’ You can watch a very poor video of the band here. Unfortunately it’s not the OGWT performance because the base there was simply wonderful. For some reason I’ve always had a fondness for the track and probably still have a recording I took of a Radio 1 concert from the same time. Not sure why I never bought the album. They were heavily influenced by the Scottish group The Average White Band. You might know their track ‘Pick Up the Pieces’. If you’ve never heard it give it a listen to. I think you’ll like it.

All of which points to the fact that ‘meaning’ is very hard to pin down.

I’ve just read over the article, Dave. I actually wrote it about four months ago so I’d forgotten most of it. It’s actually not too shabby. The thing is I’m not sure I could take it any further than this. So it’ll have to stay an embryo I’m afraid.

And, good point, Litfrefs. I think a lot of the time we get stuck by the thought that because of their size we think of words as distillations of meaning: love gets boiled down to four letters and they express what love it. Words are, however, the beginning; they’re like atoms and we all know what atoms contain. The more I research articles like this the more I wish I was a photographer.

martine said...

Bloody hell you just made me work hard. Great to find a blog that actually says something meaningful.

Jim Murdoch said...

Appreciate the feedback, Martine. I assure you it was hard work writing it too. But worthwhile I hope.

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