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Words - Their Meanings By Association And Comparison

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

We shall find it possible to class all combinations of words under two heads, corresponding to those under which we have already grouped single words. The first class includes those depending for their meaning upon the principle of association, and the second, those depending upon the principle of comparison. To get our bearings here, let us recall briefly that it has been said, with reference to the first class of words, that the times and circumstances in which a certain exclamatory sound like mama or papa is used, cause men, on account mainly of its associations, to accept it as a word, meaning what it does; and that later, after a vocabulary has been partly formed, the same principle of association causes them to ally something for which they have a name with some other thing, and to use the same name for both, as when they call towns or implements after their founders or inventors. It has been said again, with reference to the second class of words, that a certain sound proceeding from an object perceived by men is imitated by their vocal organs, and, on account of the comparison between the two sounds, the one that they have produced is accepted as a name for that which originally produced it, as when cuckoo is adopted as a term of designation for a certain bird; and that later, after a vocabulary has been partly formed, the same principle of comparison causes them to perceive that some conception for which they have a term, is like some other conception, and to apply the same term to it also, as when they use the word clear to refer both to the atmosphere and to the mind.

In accordance with the analogy of these two methods of determining the meanings of words, when used singly, we shall find that we determine also their meanings when used conjointly, i. e., either by the associations which, when combined in phrases and sentences, the words suggest, or by the comparisons which they embody. To illustrate this, suppose that one says: "Their cultivated conversation and attire interfered with the effects of their depravity." The sentence, so far as concerns its meaning, is perfectly intelligible, and this because we have learned to associate with each of the words used, cultivated, conversation, attire, etc., a certain definite conception; and this conception comes up before the mind the moment that we hear them. But now, suppose the same thought is expressed, as in this sentence of Goldsmith : "Their finery threw a veil over their grossness." In this latter case, neither the word finery, nor threw, nor veil, nor grossness, has precisely the meaning that we are accustomed to associate with it. We do not understand the sentence precisely, until we consider it as a whole, and then not until we consider that the whole expresses a comparison. In other words, the sentence means what it does, not mainly on account of the ordinary associations of its words, but on account of the comparison which it embodies. Take an-other pair of sentences which perhaps will illustrate this difference more clearly. Let one wish to express an unfortunate change in the character of a man hitherto honest. He may say that "His integrity is impaired by severe temptation"; and in this case the meaning will be obvious, because men associate definite meanings with the words integrity, impaired, severe, and temptation. Instead of using this language, however, the man may select words indicating a comparison, and a series of comparisons. He may make a picture of his idea, representing the process of the change in character, by describing the process of an analogous change in nature. He may say: "His uprightness bends before some pressing blast." Notice how much more definitely we perceive the comparison, the picture, in uprightness than in integrity, in bends than in impaired, in pressing than in severe, in blast than in temptation. In this last sentence, we perceive at once, as in a picture, the character that stood straight up, the clouds that gathered, the storm that burst, and the ruin that ensued. The immaterial process is represented literally in the material one, and only in connection with this latter have words like bends, pressing, and blast any relevancy. Poetry as a Representative Art, XVI.


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