Most blogs don’t discuss the clarification of words and meanings in their initial development. Since I address many philosophical topics in my blog, I think some time spent clarifying words and meanings is time well spent. I’ll be doing this in occasional words-and-meanings posts over time.
I assert that words are symbols that represent meanings. Merriam-Webster (MW) defines the noun meanings as: what is meant by a word, text, concept, or action. MW defines meant as: the past tense of mean. MW defines the verb mean as: intend to convey, indicate, or refer to (a particular thing or notion); signify. In this last definition, I believe that the word intend underscores the idea of communication. That is, communication is the purpose that words serve.
Along with communication in the moment, words can form a repository of meanings. Any method of recording words, either spoken or written, can serve to store those words for future listening or reading. This capability is without question what makes the recorded word immensely valuable. Additionally, words can also be invented or made up.
My goal in all of this is simply to improve communication between my writing and what readers get from it. As an example, consider the word theme. I encounter this word fairly often and grimace every time I do. I grimace because I feel fairly certain I will find the ensuing narrative confusing. And if I do, then effective communication is lost. Consequently, this is a word I assure readers I will seldom use in my writing.
I usually don’t have too much trouble when theme serves as another word for topic or subject matter. Theme can also refer to an event décor, such as a party with a Hawaiian Luau theme. Again, I get it – the décor will include fake palm trees, grass skirts and leis, maybe some sand and coconuts, and the essential Hawaiian music.
What I have trouble with is when someone asks me to tell them what the theme is of the book I’m writing or reading. Consider what MW provides as definitions for theme: a: a subject or topic of discourse or of artistic representation, b: a specific and distinctive quality, characteristic, or concern. The problem with “a topic of artistic representation” is that the topic is often anybody’s guess (think Picasso’s more abstract works, such as The Dream, Reading, and La Lecture; then suppose you were given only the work to look at and had to guess the topic or title). Additionally, “a specific and distinctive quality …” could be almost anything since I don’t think there is any limit on what might be considered a quality.
I think I may have a solution to all this. In addition to avoiding using the word theme, the next time someone asks me to tell them what the theme is of a book I’m writing or reading, I’m going to tell them this: it is a topic of artistic representation or a specific and distinctive quality, characteristic, or concern.
That should take care of it.