• Monthly Archives: August 2018

“If I’d Had My Druthers” (Form as Part of Meaning)

August 28, 2018

Y-H-B was sitting at one of his Manhattan Stammplätze, Quatorze Bis on East 79th 79the Street, when he overheard a lady say to her male companion, “If I’d had my druthers . . ..” Now, she could have said something similar in meaning like “If it were up to me,” “If the preference were mine,” etc., but she chose to put her thought in the particular linguistic dress of a phrase that derives from American dialectal speech of the 19th century and is still in common use.
What the use of this rather peculiar phrase shows is that one and the same general meaning can be expressed in a number of ways, but the choice of one particular way always carries a slight alteration of meaning because the form of the utterance enters into the meaning and thereby contributes to the utterance’s significative effect. A difference in form necessarily carries a difference in meaning even though the purport may remain the same.
The fact that the lady was overheard using “If I’d had my druthers” rather than something similar to indicate her preference may be adjudged a stylistic choice, but every difference in the stylistic presentation of the same general content always connotes a difference in meaning. This fact extends beyond language to everything that humans do, so that a semiotic choice exhibited through variations of representation by signs necessarily introduces variations in the immediate object (to put it in Peircean terms). This is especially relevant when the domain involves aesthetic considerations, as in art or music.

Clichés as Failures of Thought

August 14, 2018

Why do speakers of American English constantly recur to clichés? Not a moment goes by that one doesn’t hear “kick the can down the road,” “think out of the box,” or “low-hanging fruit” emanating from the mouths of speakers in the media, and this habit has now become cis-Atlantic, staining the speech of Brits as well as Americans.

On one hand, of course, like all idioms (including proverbs) such locutions have an immediacy of meaning in the temporal as well as semantic sense that render them efficient and useful to expression, especially when a circumlocution would take more time and thought. The latter word is directly relevant because letzten Endes these clichés are invariably failures of thought (to one or another degree), and when characteristic of someone’s speech, they tend to lessen both the directness and the value of utterances that contain them.