Play With Words

November 27, 2002

While letters form the basic elements of our language, they are, of themselves, without meaning. Typically, we don’t attach any sense to letters, and if someone was to utter “A, H, P, Z, N,” we would not have any means to understand what this person might be trying to say”?indeed, we would likely think that he or she was not saying anything at all. It is words that provide the basic units of sense in our language; however, words uttered alone have only a vague sense, and even that sense depends upon the relations of the word with the rest of the words in our language. For example, if someone utters only the word “monkey,” we can understand that they have uttered something meaningful”?there is something present in the utterance that invokes in us a sense of the word and a corresponding reference. We might think of a monkey that we’ve seen at the zoo, in a book, on television, or maybe, if we have had the opportunity, a monkey that we’ve seen in the wild. However we have attached or understood a sense of “monkey,” we can see that it is not derived from knowing the word “?monkey’ alone, but occurs as a result of our knowledge of other words, perhaps including: hairy, primate, tail, banana, legs, feet, arms, teeth, eyes, trees, book, television, zoo, etc. Some might suggest that the isolation of the meaning of “?monkey’ is impossible; that is, we might think that there is no way to give an exact definition of monkey that does not include our knowledge of the rest our language, or at least the parts of it that we know. It is in this sense that some post-modern theorists claim that the meanings of words are always deferred, which is to say, the meaning of a specific word is put off to the meanings of other words, which in turn can be put off to the meanings of other words, and so on.

We all play with words, and the philosopher Wittgenstein suggested the notion of Language Games. It was his opinion that the meaning of a word existed in its use. In our use of language we can recognize some aspects of our play with words. In one sense, we all play the game of communication with words. We habitually formulate ideas into linguistic structures that can be conveyed to others by using the rules and codes of a language. In fact, we might think that without language”?without a language game to play”?we would not be able to think or formulate ideas at all. It is the existence of a language game, which allows to play with words in the first place. However, this also gives us another sense of playing with words, which is that we, through the fact that the words of our language have several meanings, have the opportunity to create interesting and novel constructions to convey strange and wonderful intents and ideas. In this sense of playing with words, we might often violate the rules and consensus of our language game to create utterances which some might decry as nonsense, while others might find some meaning in such utterances, however strange or difficult that meaning might be.

For some simplistic instances, I might wonder why I cannot spread traffic jam on toast, or I might want to know how short a person on the bus or train might have to be to qualify as a low rider. I might ask about when the coronation of the king of the road occurred, and if there are monster trucks, then do children think that they are hiding under their beds or in their closets? Speaking of kids, having a fire drill at school seems to be dangerous, especially if the kids are allowed to use it unsupervised. And of course, there is always the classic, “I’ve just flown in from (insert the name of a place here), and boy are my arms tired.”

Leaving these attempts above aside, we can note that certain types of play with words result in humour. We can generate fun and laughs by forcing our language to do unusual things, or by placing words in unexpected contexts. It is in this respect that we are able to create jokes and puns by playing with language; however, such play requires that we break free from our habitual uses of language, and step outside the rules that govern the particular language game that we might be playing. In other words, some types of play with words require that we refuse to play with words in a standard manner.

A further sense of playing with words comes when we interpret the linguistic structures that we interact with. For instance, when we interpret a sentence such as, “She fought hard not to give up her baby,” we get a chance to play with words due to an ambiguity in the statement. Is there one woman involved or is there two? Habitually, we don’t give such a sentence any play, but jump straight to the assumption that there is only one woman involved, but we can see that the sentence, “Susan fought hard not to give up Jackie’s baby,” could indeed be conveying the same information as the former sentence, but now there is no ambiguity embedded in the statement”?we know for sure that there are two women.

Consider the title of this article: is it a statement that reflects the content of this piece of writing, is it a command for the reader to act in a certain way, is it a request and call for certain linguistic behaviour, or is it a question inquiring into whether there really is play with words? How much of the linguistic structures sent and received by people everywhere each and every day are clouded by ambiguity, and yet, how often do we interpret them in only one sense, habitually, conditioned, and without any play?

b.e. hydomako is a grouchy old crank trapped in the body of a wet behind the ears goldfish in a tank that is full of too many piranhas (which is, well, any number of them really). The tank is also quite dirty, and getting more so everyday, but no one seems willing or able to clean the tank, or at least clean it in a way that is really effective. He would like to understand more about the relations that make up the existence of himself, the other fish, the tank, and what is beyond, but knows that this is a most difficult task”?he is, after all, only a goldfish!