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When Only Learnèd (Recondite, Recherché) Words Will Do

Even if we adopt the translation theory of meaning, wherein every immediate object (to use Peirce’s terminology) has an interpretation in terms of another immediate object (meaning), there is one such “object” that escapes ultimate characterization: the individual human being. This latter creature in its individuality can only be captured linguistically by the use of two learnèd words and no other (in English, at any rate): (1) haecceity, defined as the status of being an individual or a particular nature; otherwise individuality, specificity, thisness; specifically that which makes something to be an ultimate reality different from any other; and (2) quiddity, defined as the essential nature or ultimate form of something; what makes something to be the type of thing that it is.

These two Latinate words cannot be supplanted by any others from the rich storehouse of native English vocabulary because only they capture what is semiotically true––and at the heart of Peirce’s apothegm (meant asexually), “Man is a sign”––quite apart from such abstract defining characteristics of human personhood as thought and consciousness. The haecceity (“thisness”) of any given human person necessarily adumbrates a concomitant quiddity (“suchness”), and the two jointly body forth a unique, unreplicable figura that underwrites all the interpretants adumbrated thereby.

Only English, with its uniquely mottled Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman history, has the capacity to use learnèd vocabulary to such precise ontological effect.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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