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"Useful Fictions" and the Definition of Words

What are some arguments why words should have definitions? Are definitions useful fictions?

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This solution will give you a brief introduction to the relevant fields of study (semiology/semiotics). I will explain why the nature of word definitions is controversial and what a "useful fiction" is, and I will provide a set of questions that will allow you to brainstorm about the use of definitions while you're working on your assignment.

1. Semiotics/Semiology: The Study of Signs and Words

One of the primary issues discussed in relation to the definitions of words and the meanings of words is the relationship between the word--the sign--and what it represents--the signified. The "study of signs within society" is defined as semiology or semiotics (Brooker 226). Ferdinand Saussure, a Swiss Linguist, inaugurated this field of study when he distinguished between the sign and the signified. Saussure argued that the relationship between the sign and the signified was arbitrary—that the word itself had no special meaning, but rather accumulated meaning through its usage and social context (Brooker 227).

Here is an example of what Saussure meant by this:

Let's take the word "tree." This English word refers to a woody plant, something we have all seen or encountered in some way before. In French, this same thing (the signified) is referred to as a "arbre," and in German it is referred to as a "baum." So now we have these three signs—tree, arbre, and baum—to refer to this one signifier. All of the signs are different, and so they mean nothing in and of themselves. Their meaning comes from the social context which created and recognized them. The signifier, in this case a woody plant, ...

Solution Summary

This solution will give you a brief introduction to the relevant fields of study (semiology/semiotics). I will explain why the nature of word definitions is controversial and what a "useful fiction" is, and I will provide a set of questions that will allow you to brainstorm about the use of definitions while you're working on your assignment.

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