What Gives a Word Its Meaning?

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Adam Sennet on the philosophy of language

Dictionaries provide us with descriptions of word meanings, helping us to answer the question: “What does this word mean?” Adam Sennet, a professor of philosophy, seeks to answer a different question: “What gives this word or utterance meaning?”

When studying words, Sennet takes several factors into consideration. He starts by thinking about the category and usage of the word in question.

“What helps gives a verb its meaning might be different than what helps give a noun its meaning,” Sennet says. “Proper nouns, such as names, are typically treated as tags for something. Whereas verbs have an internal complexity to them that names don’t.”

Toddler and UC Davis professor grinning at each other
UC Davis philosophy professor Adam Sennet and a young friend share a moment of nonverbal communication. 

For an example of this internal complexity, consider the two verbs “jumped” and “licked.” The word “jumped” only needs to be accompanied by a subject in order to make a sensible sentence (i.e. John jumped), whereas “licked” needs to be accompanied by both a subject and an object to form a complete thought (i.e. John licked ice cream).

When determining what gives rise to a word’s meaning, Sennet also analyzes the logical inferences that can be made from using the word in a particular sentence. For instance, consider the word “know.” From the sentence “I know I am in Davis,” we can infer that the concept of knowledge is related to belief; the speaker believes he is in Davis. “We therefore can infer that the meaning of ‘know’ is intimately connected with the concept of belief.”

Additionally, Sennet considers the history of the word, the conventions it has been used in, and its distribution throughout different areas of language.

What makes a slur offensive?

In a paper published in the journal Philosophical Studies in 2014, What kind of mistake is it to use a slur?” Sennet analyzes the factors that account for the offensive character of slurs.

Sennet said that it is important to make a distinction between whether or not the word in question is derogatory, and whether or not the group in question is offended by the term. For example, someone may not take offense to the term “Jap” despite the fact that the word is considered innately derogatory. On the other hand, someone may take offense to a childhood nickname such as “baby face” despite the fact that the phrase is not comprised of any derogatory words. Another example comes in the form of the phrase, “Slavery is not too bad.” Although none of the individual words that make up the phrase are derogatory, the phrase is offensive when the words are taken together in context.

“The first thing to think about is what caused the offense,” Sennet said. “Does the group in question not want to be called the term due the history of the term or the associations it carries? If that’s the case, the term may not be offensive in itself, but using the term may be considered offensive. They’ve asked you not to use it, just like how someone might ask another to not be called by their nickname.

“It is really hard to give a theory of meaning to a derogatory term because these words tie in with the background ideologies of the user,” Sennet says.

Consider for example, a person calling another person by a derogatory term to get their attention. From the mindset of the racist person, the things they say may be true from their own perspective, in the idea that they are trying to refer to somebody by calling them a particular word. “On the other hand, the things that they are saying about the person aren’t true, because nobody should be treated badly based on their race.”

Additionally, many derogatory terms may not be known to be offensive by the user themselves. Consider the word “gypped” for instance. People often pick up this term during their childhoods, using it to express the feeling of being cheated on (“You gypped me.”). The verb “gypped” was derived from the noun ‘Gypsy’ — a derogatory term coined by Europeans over 1,000 years ago to refer to Romani people. “Gypped” therefore holds a historical racist connotation to it, implying that Romani people are thieves. “Verbs that come from nouns often don’t always retain their original meaning,” Sennet says. “When I was a kid, you learned to say ‘I got gypped,’ but I thought of it just as a synonym for ‘swindle.’”

From puzzles to philosophy

fresco of old man in toga showing two doors to group of young men
A fresco in Madrid portrays Greek philosopher Zeno of Elea showing the doors of truth and falsity to a group of youths. An early introduction to Zeno's paradox and other puzzles led UC Davis Professor Adam Sennet to study philosophy. (Creative Commons)

Sennet first became interested in philosophy during his childhood. He attended weekly synagogue services with his father, and a philosophy professor sat behind them. “He used to give me all kinds of puzzles and paradoxes to play with,” Sennet said. The Zeno’s paradox and the Euthyphro paradox are two of the philosophical problems that stood out to him the most. 

Outside of his research of the philosophy of language, Sennet enjoys playing guitar and video games, and reading novels.

Sennet joined the UC Davis faculty in 2006, after completing his doctorate at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. In addition to philosophy of language courses, he teaches “Introduction to Philosophy,” the hybrid “Philosophical Perspectives on Sexuality” and “Contemporary Analytic Philosophy.”

— James Sommer ’18, spring 2018 writing intern for the UC Davis College of Letters and Science