Words: Solid Footing or Treacherous Potholes?

Would a cheese by any other name taste just as delicious? Or foul? THEO AINLEY

Polonius: What do you read, my lord?

Hamlet: Words, words, words.

Polonius: What is the matter, my lord?

Hamlet: Between who?

Polonius: I mean, the matter that you read, my lord.

Hamlet: Slanders, sir: for the satirical rogue says here that old men have grey beards....

Polonius: [Aside] Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.

–Hamlet, Act II, Scene ii.1

There is room in words, enough for Hamlet to consider slanderous what others deem obvious. But is Hamlet's madness - or his pretence of madness - to bear the entire responsibility for misunderstanding between readers and authors, between speakers and listeners? Are words this efficient at conveying definite meaning? Or should they be considered as malleable artefacts? How should one navigate the abundance of words one is confronted with on a daily basis?

Word associations

A commonly held belief concerning the relationship between words and the ‘real world’ would be that when some unknown thing shows up, we name it and off goes ambiguity and our ignorance of the thing. We have tamed the unknown by naming it. Take a British child for example, who has been confronted with edible rectangular masses called cheese by the adults. Soon enough, the smell, taste and look of it became associated with the word ‘cheddar’. The child knew what cheddar was and what the word ‘cheddar’ referred to. Until one way or another they were introduced to what we French people call ‘cheddar’ cheese; a tasteless, synthetic, orange sham of a cheese only available in thin slices wrapped in plastic foil and meant to decorate your homemade hamburgers. Would you have recognised it?

On a grimmer note, I was shocked when hearing Brits casually talking about people being ‘deported’. Deportation is “the action of forcing someone to leave a country, especially someone who has no legal right to be there or who has broken the law” (Cambridge Dictionary). In French, if the word ‘déportation’ has the same meaning, its immediate collocation is ‘la déportation des Juifs et des Tsiganes’, i.e., Jewish and Romani people being deported by Nazi Germany and the French Vichy Government. Depending on your culture, the same word can refer to different realities. Gelman and Roberts showed in a 2017 study that language conveys labels (e.g., ‘shark’, ‘woman’) and generics (e.g., “sharks attack swimmers”; “women are nurturing”). There is hardly any true and well-established link between words and some independent reality, rather complex cultural constructions, points of view that live on thanks to language's generics and labels.

Take the word ‘NHS’, for example. It refers to an institution close to British hearts. Across the UK, depending on whether you cheer for Tories: “The NHS represents the best of this country. It is there for us when our children are born, when our friends and families fall sick, when our loved ones succumb to old age and ill health”, 2019 Conservative Manifesto. Or for Labour:

“The National Health Service is one of Labour’s proudest achievements. The right to free-at-the-point-of-use healthcare, universal and comprehensive in scope, is socialism in action”, 2019 Labour Manifesto.

One focuses on individual and relatable elements whilst the other is attached to a strong historical and political perspective. Here, we enter the realm of what Austrian philosopher Wittgenstein calls ‘unsinnig’, meaning nonsensical (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus)3. It does not mean that the given sentences do not make sense, but rather that what is being said about the NHS is neither right nor wrong. No scientific experiment will ever rule out one of the two propositions as inadequate with reality. The problem is that most of our everyday speech belongs to Wittgenstein's nonsense.

Language and politics

Yet political decisions are made every day in the name of ‘Britain’, ‘the UK’ ‘the people’, (“the people want...”). How do politicians know what “the people” want? Through opinion polls? Words make up questions, people receive the questions, answer them and return them back to representatives defending their constituents' viewpoints in the Commons. “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.” Opinion polls have been criticised for how reductive and misleading their sets of questions are. According to Bourdieu (1979), “[t]he dominated, whose interests are bound up with the raising of consciousness, i.e., with language, are at the mercy of the discourses that are presented to them” (Distinction). Language coming from and crafted by the top of society will probably not correspond to the language the surveyed are used to, thus creating a sort of blurred and generally assumed meaning that won't immediately correspond to actual concerns they, the masses, may have.

Bourdieu continues in Sociology in Question (1993): “I have said that there is, on the one hand, mobilised opinion, formulated opinion, pressure groups mobilized around a system of explicitly formulated interests; and, on the other hand, there are dispositions which, by definition, are not opinion if one means by that […] something that can be formulated in discourse with some claim to coherence.” Although it may be madness to think that everyone holds a precise opinion on a given topic, there is a Machiavellian method at work here. Asking a question to a largely unaware public already shapes the public's opinion, in a way that suits precise ‘interests’, pressuring the group. The Nation's consent is being manufactured (see Chomsky and Hermann 1988)6, undefined words yield political legitimacy while their blurry meaning is left to be shaped more precisely by people with said interests.


This is what my year as an Erasmus student has helped me to realise: words shouldn't be seen as bricks we assemble into walls (sentences), which then compose compelling buildings (speech). Instead, they should be depicted as more or less transparent jars that can contain various items (collocations/generics) despite their labels. Isn't it what studying language might also be about? Documenting what's behind words, yes, but also making public what is implied by some recurring ones. Indeed, not everyone has the time or the skill to inquire about the madness of words, yet everyone is confronted with crucially important top to bottom speech, as the Brexit campaign emphatically demonstrated. Should linguistics enter the political ring and become a Martial Art, to help people navigate politics, like Bourdieu said about sociology? Or do we want to see scientific works evolve exclusively in their strictly scientific circles? Personally, I always try to keep Hamlet's injunction in mind: '[w]e must speak by the card, or equivocation will undo us'.

Written by Theo Ainley


Bourdieu, P. (1986). Distinction (Routledge Classics) (1st ed.). Routledge.

Bourdieu, P. (1994). Sociology in Question (Published in association with Theory, Culture & Society) (First ed.). SAGE Publications Ltd.

Gelman, S. A., & Roberts, S. O. (2017). How language shapes the cultural inheritance of categories. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(30), 7900–7907.

Jones, J. (2018, October 26). An Animated Introduction to Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent and How the Media Creates the Illusion of Democracy. Open Culture.

Shakespeare, W. (2020, June 25). Hamlet. The Folger SHAKESPEARE.

Wittgenstein, L., & Joseph, M. A. (2014). Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Amsterdam University Press.

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