The Problem with WORDS

Neil Greenberg


“The other night I was reading the dictionary….

I thought it was a poem about everything.”

—Steven Wright.




1988 … “I have a powerful urge to know the causes of things.  Like most of my colleagues and probably all infants, I want to know the chains of causation … to explain them if only to my self, to understand them … and then to share that understanding.  (that I “need to share” is an interesting problem on its own … maybe by sharing I understand more completely … maybe I seek corroboration … more sources of confidence in the validity of an idea … that would make it more “real”) (But Goethe (like the Velveteen Rabbit) said only love provides the insight that makes things real)   My favorite biology professor, seemingly sympathetic about my frustration in the laboratory once said, “if you can’t explain it, describe the shit out of it.”   He seems to be right in a way that was unexpected: the attempt to find the right words, to describe … that is, the artist’s problem, the poet’s job … leads to unexpected juxtapositions of the extended meanings of the words I use: wholly new threads of thinking and feeling suddenly twitch like resonating strings… sudden digressions (the ADHD disposition?) become epiphanies.”  

Laura Wait (Resonance II, encaustic/mixed media)

2012 … I’ve got to use words if I want to negotiate along the edge of what can be understood as a key necessity for science –shared understanding– My concern for a few years was bridging the “explanatory gap.” (to abuse the metaphor: the gap between subjective and objective is like a crevice I encountered on a hike in Black Canyon, and no one has shown me a convincing way to safely get across– I am however, perhaps, overly cautious)


OK, “when you’ve got the meaning, you can forget the words” — WORDS are abstract representations of an idea in mind … which is itself an abstraction of converging cognitive processes such as perception and memory … which are themselves abstractions of information detected and processed by our sense organs … which detect changes in their immediate environment: forms of energy being detected and assumed to represent reality.   In other words (!) words are the endpoint of a cascade of abstractions through multiple levels of organization, each with its own biases and affordances. 


(Once a word is selected, it feeds back into the machinery of cognition affecting subsequent choices — during this feed-back, its “baggage” may be further unpacked, more-or-less subtly changing its perceived meaning.  It is also “out there” for other to assess and inform your subsequent choices is a kind of echo of “error detection” which ramifies though out the brain. (see A&O notes on error-detection)). 

In my own writing, subsequent read-throughs or vocal recitations (even if under my breath but especially to an audience) lead to revisions to increase precision or sometimes to make more vague. If I MUST make a choice of a word, I’ll but it in quotes to indicate that I know that it is at best an approximation. The masters of word selection are our poets –routinely coping with meaning.  Poets are our specialists in the processes that enhance and best communicate understanding–even understanding of one’s self: C. Day-Lewis wrote, “We do not write in order to be understood; we write in order to understand.”[i]


A WORD (like a number) is an objective representation of an ideas or things, but are not things in themselves (with interesting exceptions (as asemic artists have discovered) when they are disconnected from what they represent).  SO they are dominated by our sapience, leaving a vast resrvoir of sentient meaning untapped except in the way the word sounds.  Here is how a great popular music lyricist put it: Words Make You Think A Thought. Music Makes You Feel A Feeling. A Song Makes You Feel A Thought.” 


NOW, integrate these ideas with your understanding with the A&O notes on SAPIENCE and SENTIENCE




A relatively new problem that creates a troubling dissonance (mismatch between what is believed and what seems to be real  – see A&O Notes on Cognitive Dissonance) is how best to represent REALITY.  This is an issue that is now MUCH more interesting in that reality itself may be problematical in the world of the QUANTUM.  Look in on Marcelo Gleiser’s small essay, Our Language is Inadequate to Describe Quantum Reality:   Here he observes that “in the world of the quantum, the observer plays a crucial role in determining the physical nature of what is being observed. The notion of an objective reality is lost. Progress in this bizarre field could only be made through radically new approaches. Knowability — that is, the possibility of having absolute knowledge of something — is impossible, and While the math is incredibly clear, language is incapable of describing quantum reality.”  

we may not need to stretch our efforts at representing reality to quantum phenomena … what “reality” is ever well represented by words?

    • Thomas Lewton, in New Scientist,  frames the quantum issues nicely in his reporting on measuring the immeasurable (2023) – he points out that just struggling with the problem contributes significantly to our understanding.   [resonates with the idea that the journey is the destination (attributed to Emerson) and General Eisenhower’s “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable” (quoted in NYT, Nov 15, 1957)]

“Each human language represents a solution to the communicative needs of its community.” [we must add to this also, the needs at a particular level of organization.] The language available to speak to chemical senses seems particularly impoverished –but perhaps only in English, where “the chemical senses play a minor role in language: they appear to be weakly lexicalised (there are few words for these senses); those words appear with low frequency in corpora; and under experimental conditions, English speakers struggle to name smells and tastes.” Quite unlike the place of chemical sensation in other human populations.  (from Asifa Majid’s presentation, “Communicating about the chemical senses in the world’s languages,” at a meeting on “Chemical communication in humans” organized by the Royal Society in 2019 (https://royalsociety.org/science-events-and-lectures/2019/04/chemical-communication/ )




The observations of physicists are powerful at the level of organization they work in, but not unprecedented at other levels.  The resonance is unmistakable: 

“Words are but symbols for the relations of things to one another and to us; nowhere do they touch upon absolute truth…. through words and concepts we shall never reach beyond the wall off relations, to some sort of fabulous primal ground of things.”

(Friedrich Nietzsche (1873) Philosophy In The Tragic Age Of The Greeks)

(is this why truth always seems to on the tip of one’s tongue, but cannot quite be spoken?)


WORDS are always approximations of what they hope to mean: they have meaning in terms of the connections in the minds of those using them. They are, in detail, UNIQUE, and in using them we tolerate more-or-less ambiguity:  For example, “I think… if it is true that there are as many minds as there are heads, then there are as many kinds of love as there are hearts.”   Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina  (see A&O notes on uniqueness)  (from A&O notes on WORDS)





WORDS are our crystalized thoughts

(“fossilized poetry” according to Emerson)

but thoughts are complex and exact matches may never be found.  In fact,

the problem of translation within and between our multiple perspectives and at every level of organization is arguably

at the center of ART & ORGANISM:

Look at the A&O web page on TRANSLATION 





W. H. Auden once wrote that Language is the mother, not the handmaiden, of thought; words will tell you things you never thought or felt before” (quoted in A&O notes).  

This extraordinary power of words may be attributable to its pleiotropy (see “The Problem with Words”).  Every word exits in mind at the center of an intuitive mind-map in which more-or-less of all it might refer to–past and future– are perceived (almost) simultaneously.


WORDS can be vectors in our brain’s understanding of time and space[1].   WORDS have MEANING—and like everything else we discuss in A&O meaning relies on connectedness:  for example, the words poets choose have more-or-less meaning.  Robert Pogue Harrison reviewed a translation of Canti by Giacomo Leopardi (in NYRB February 10, 2011) & commented on a very significant element for all writers to consider:

An …”exasperating feature of Leopardi’s poetry for the English translator is its systematic deployment of common words. Leopardi sheds light on this practice in his notebooks, where he draws a distinction between what he called parole and termini, words and terms:  “Parole” are words that have been in circulation through the ages and contain a number of associations, connotations, and latent meanings. “Termini,” by contrast, are unhistorical, univocal, often technical terms that do not connote, only denote. By preserving their metaphorical and sensory history, parole come with a host of “accessory images,” whereas termini “offer only a single idea of the object signified.” Leopardi elaborates: “If I call a plant or animal by the Linnaean name, I have aroused none of these [accessory] images, even though the thing itself is clearly indicated.”   

                                                            [See A&O notes on The Problem with Wordsconnections and ambiguity]

Of course each of us takes each word and reconstructs its meaning from past association … this ambiguity is arguably a great source of confusion and the fountainhead of creativity … deploying this to effect is part of the implicit genius of the great poets, as we each add new meanings from our own unique experience in the reconstruction of key words .  We collaborate in the creative genius of the artist–see A&O notes on Delacroix on painting as communication.



[1]  Words as vectors in multidimensional space: Semantic projection recovers rich human knowledge of multiple object features from word embeddings. (Grand et al. in Nat Hum Behav 6, 975–987 (2022))





IS a WORD a kind of TRAIT?   Can I say that words are pleiotropic… have multiple meanings any one of which can—like an evolutionary adaptation—strike out in a new direction when their environment changes?  (see above)



Sometimes I feel jargon is poetry; a familiar word used in an unfamiliar, even rare sense.  I’m drawn to jargon.  I’ve always felt that unfamiliar or foreign words can crystalize a new meaning or a new facet of an old meaning—and the Wikipedia list of mathematical jargon I just came across may be a good example—can the traditional baggage evoke new insights in the context of mathematics?  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_mathematical_jargon.  Can these applications reflect back into the deep meaning of the word?



Joseph Campbell once wrote, “The best things can’t be told . . .”  Yet most of us have found ourselves deeply moved by a combinations of words that seem to evoke deep feelings that could not in any other way be so well expressed. 

 At a presentation about poetry of spirituality at the Westside UU congregation a few years ago I patched together an Opening Prayer from the words of Blaise Pascal, Albert Einstein, and John F Kennedy:  The heart has its reasons of which reason knows not. For the heart’s  intuition is a sacred gift and our rational mind is a faithful servant, but Woe to the society that “honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”  / Let us remember that in the end, our choices are aesthetic.  /  Let us remember that when power leads to arrogance, poetry can restore our limitations.  /  That when power narrows our concern, poetry reminds us of the richness and diversity of existence.   /  That when power corrupts, poetry cleanses.   /  Let us honor the art that undertakes the sharing of the deepest layers of humanity in the light of the truths which are the touchstone of our judgement.

 these words imply that poetry is an art form which is somehow more pure and direct in its communication.  (but all language is “fossil poetry,” Emerson reminds us)



There is a powerful line by the Romantic era poet, Novalis[1]


Poetry heals the wounds inflicted by reason



It is often clear that some words are effective in poetry because of HOW THEY SOUND, not WHAT THEY MEAN — the French Symbolist poets (among others) understood this. (see the idea in the context of the poet, Paul Valéry: in 1890. Valéry was introduced into the Parisian literary circle of Mallarmé, whose work Valéry revered. Mallarmé was the leading figure of Symbolism, the movement  [which in French poetry was] highly metaphorical, deliberately esoteric [and] had turned away from traditional French classicism and clarity in favor of indeterminacy, synesthesia, and an emphasis on the musicality of language.” (from “The Dream of Pure Expression” by Claire Messud (2020)  Reviewing: The Idea of Perfection: The Poetry and Prose of Paul Valéry , in The New York Review)   IN FACT: what happens when all meaning other than sound is relinquished?  Music?  


….  My daily revelation is that it is the effort to create poetry that heals as much as the poem itself.  Even the awful stuff: “All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling” (Oscar Wilde); but also, “A poem is never finished only abandoned” (Paul Valery)  (but Rabbi Tarfon tells us, You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”)


[1] Novalis  outlined in Wikipedia and discussed in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  The line quoted is from Quote, Unquote (1989) by Jonathan Williams, p. 136 in Wikiquotes)

“Words don’t have meaning, we do” – watch John Koenig about “words” … Then connect to an ancient idea:

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