Word Meaning is Creative

It is a commonplace notion that most words have a particular meaning (with the caveat that sometimes they have a handful of meanings for ambiguous words such as jaguar). Understanding a meaning of a word in a sentence, according to this default theory, is one of meaning selection, not one of meaning creation. Here I argue that this simple theory is insufficient, and creativity is required in understanding any sentence.

Dictionaries lead us to believe that a word has a certain set of meanings. The word pitcher, my 11th-edition Webster Collegiate Dictionary tells me, has three meanings: (A) a person who pitches (in baseball), (B) a container for fluids, and (C) a modified leaf of the pitcher plant shaped like that container.

According to this simple story of meaning, when we read a sentence containing a word with multiple meanings, other words in the sentence help us pick the right sense. Thus, if pitcher cooccurs with beer we are led to meaning B whereas we reach meaning A if the sentence mentions a home run. This is a process of selecting from a set of rigid meanings, not one of creatively inventing a meaning to fit the situation, perhaps by starting with a meaning and twisting and stretching and deforming it to fit.

Consider how one might understand the following sentence: We drank a pitcher of beer. Here, the meaning of pitcher, according to this simple story, will be meaning B because of words like drank and beer.

Did you notice that the meaning in fact IS NOT meaning B? We did not drink the container for fluids. No, we drank the fluid. It is easy to not notice that we changed the meaning a little, a fact easy to miss because of how effortlessly and automatically it all happens. Had I said I shattered the pitcher when I dropped it, I’d mean the container. In fact, there are always many shades of meanings, many families of related meaning, swirling around the simplest of words that a dictionary cannot anticipate, nor, even if it did, could it spell out all those meanings.

To drive home the point that a single word has many related meanings, I show below three sets of sentences. Each set contains a repeated word or phrase. The meanings in a set are all related to each other unlike the case of the two completely unrelated meanings of pitcher (the container and the ball player).

Here is the first set and Harry Potter is the repeated phrase.

S1.1: I read Harry Potter.

S1.2: I watched Harry Potter.

S1.3: Daniel Radcliffe played Harry potter.

S1.4: Hermione Granger loved Harry Potter.

S1.5: I loved Harry Potter.

We effortlessly switch between the senses of Harry Potter: the book, the movie, the character, the Harry Potter fictional universe, and so forth.

Note how S1.4 and S1.5 are so similar grammatically and yet the phrases Harry Potter in them have a rather different sense: the prior refers to the character, the latter floats ambiguously between a mix of the Harry Potter movies, books, universe, character, the actor who played it and so forth. In fact, the word love in those two sentences also has a different sense.

S2.1: I bought a pretty pair of Nike.

S2.2: Nike fired 10 employees.

S2.3: I bought Nike on the dip and sold when it rallied.

S2.4: Nike next to my house moved to Elm street.

The senses of the shoes, the company that made those shoes, the stock of that company and the physical store of that company are all wrapped together in that one word, Nike, and we ferret out the meaning in context.

S3.1: The book is witty.

S3.2: The book is leather bound.

S3.3: The judge threw the book at the disgraced politician.

S3.4: The book is mightier than the DVD.

I especially like S3.3. The first two (3.1 and 3.2) are often discussed (the content of the book and the physical book). The third sense (throwing the book at someone, i.e., punishing them as severely as the book of law allows) deliciously combines these two: “book” refers to rules, and thus akin to sense in S3.1, but the word throw is something we apply to physical things, so akin to the sense in S3.2.

S3.4 talks not of any particular book but of the totality of all books, and is thus a distinct sense from the other three.

With this unlimited number of possible meanings, understanding the meaning is no longer a case of selecting from among a fixed set. It is instead a creative process of piecing together the meaning, perhaps inventing a meaning not encountered before. Watch yourself make sense of the phrase Harry Potter in the following sentence:

S1.6: At the birthday party, after the candles were blown and the song sung, each six-year old crowding around the cake hoped that they would be the one who got to eat Harry Potter.

I daresay that that sense of Harry Potter — a bit of icing shaped like the character — is one you have not often encountered, yet you had not much trouble making sense of it, no trouble taking the meanings you knew and twisting them just a tad to fit.

This process of making the meaning fit occurs throughout the process of reading and even in the process of understanding the events around us.

I will end this short note with a particular form of the creative process of meaning making that I find fascinating and illuminating.

Consider the word thread. What first comes to mind is a noun: either a piece of string (whether concrete like the thing kittens chase or abstract like the bonds of a relationship), or a small process running on a computer. Instead, I want you to think of the verb sense of that word. What does it mean to thread?

According to the naive theory above, there are a few verb senses, which dictionaries can list. My dictionary lists two main verb senses for to thread: one concerns putting a thread or thread-like thing through an aperture (threading a needle), and another with creating a thread (from cotton, for example).

Pause a moment and see if you can think of other senses of the verb. Specifically, I want you to think about eye lashes.

I don’t know whether this is an Indian thing, but there are threading salons where you can get your eyebrows threaded. Here, the stylist uses a thread to pluck some hair leaving a shapely eyebrow.

I suggest that the meaning of to thread is merely “that thing you do with a thread”. That is underspecified, and what “that thing you do” could be different in different contexts. It takes some creativity to get the specific meaning in a given context. Sometimes one uses a thread to shape eyebrows, other times sewing with it after running it through the eye of a needle, other times to join a series of things together, and with this underspecified meaning, the meaning of to thread can adapt to novel senses of the noun thread as well as to novel uses of threads.

This simple fact, that the meaning of a verbed noun is merely “do that which you do with X” can explain otherwise puzzling oddities such as the verb “to seed”, which can mean both removing seeds (seeding a grape) or adding seeds (to soil), not to mention other senses such as deciding who the seeds are (in a tennis tournament), or that verbs like “to belt” can take a range of meanings from hitting someone with a belt or strapping with a belt (to a carseat).

I repeat: this underspecification is a feature, not a bug. When a new sense of a noun emerges or a new use of an existing noun emerges, the verbed form happily expands itself to cover the meaning.

There is a second meaning of a verbed noun: do that which the noun does. One example is the verb to snake, as in “the river snaked through the valley”.

I close this note with a list of verbs. To me, a word buff, this delicious movement from noun to verb is intoxicating, and I want to share my excitement. Read each word and think about what the verb means, and think about whether you just know the meaning or are (re)creating the meaning on the fly. In some cases, I added sentence fragments to illustrate a sense that did not immediately occur to me.

To weed (remove); to skin (remove the skin or add a skin “skin minecraft”), to bed someone (do that thing to someone which you do on a bed), to mushroom, to sex (what you do with sex is identify it; there is a well-paid profession called chicken sexing), to dog someone, to nose around, to finger someone (to point someone out with a finger or do that which you with a finger in a sexual act), to elbow, to knuckle, to head the soccer ball, to tail, to shadow, to police (the villagers policed the streets), to wine, to baby someone, to kid, to man (a boat), to bankroll something (finance it; that is what bankrolls are for), to summit (reach it), to house (the building housed the FBI offices), to sleep ten (this tent sleeps two people), to wolf down something, to fox someone, to ferret something out, to weasel, to hound, to rat, to pen a story, to pencil an entry, to sharpie a hurricane, to butter bread, to gun, to bag something, to pocket, to room with someone, and finally my favorite, to science the shit out of something.

I do unsupervised concept discovery at Pinterest (and previously at Google). Twitter: @amahabal