The Meaning of Meanings


The first concept most students learn about the meaning of meanings is the Semantic Triangle. This label refers to the three part connection among a referent, a reference, and a symbol. The referent is the thing, such as my cat Baxter. The reference is the thought I have of Baxter, a 12 year old grey tabby who loves to lounge on my computer keyboard. The symbol is the word "Baxter." Notice that if I am talking about Baxter I have selected the referent and have control over the reference and symbol. However, if I talk to you about Baxter lounging on my keyboard you will not understand my meaning until you understand the thing (the referent) I am speaking of and the thoughts (references) I have of that thing.

The Semantic Triangle allows for some ambiguity. After all, it is not possible for you to know exactly what my thoughts are. Still, there needs to be ways for people to help make sure they are understand by others, especially when referents, references, or symbols are new to one or more of the communicators. There are four ways in which we help each other understand what we mean:

  1. Definitions -- these tell others what is in our heads, or what we mean when we use a certain word;
  2. Metaphors -- metaphors allow us to talk about something unfamiliar in terms of something else that is familiar. Metaphors also allow us to merge two concepts whose result is a third concept. For example, I could speak of Baxter as a furry bundle of energy.
  3. Feedforward -- this is the process of providing feedback to ourselves before we even speak, so that we help ourselves choose the best way to communicate in a given situation to a given audience; and
  4. Basic English -- the set of 850 words out of which any person can effectively communicate ideas, simple or complex.


For detailed information read:

Ogden, C. K., & Richards, I. A. (1923). The meaning of meaning. London: Kegan, Paul, Trench, Trubner.

Richards, I. A. (1936). The philosophy of rhetoric. London: Oxford University.

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