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things 12
summer 2000

Words and the World

As we were saying: at things, we're not particularly keen on definitions - but that doesn't mean we never open a dictionary. We do, frequently - and not only in our never-ending quest to eliminate typos; although that's important too, and should never be left to the tender mercies of a word processor's spell-check. (Try typing the word 'Bauhaus' into your copy of Word - ours suggests 'Boohoos'.)

We may not believe in definitions, but we do believe in language as a shared enterprise - the great human tool for communicating information about the world. Dictionary definitions are monuments to that belief. The assignment of words to the things they signify may be arbitrary, but for language to work we must agree on their meanings.

So how do the dictionaries define a thing? Collins English Dictionary, we are delighted to find, is strangely but becomingly reticent about the need to define the word thing: 'an object, fact, affair, circumstance or concept considered as being a separate entity'. Someone has been here before, clearly, and thinking in a direction not very different from our own.

The Oxford English Dictionary goes one step further: for it, a thing is 'that which is signified, as distinguished from a word, symbol or idea by which it is represented, the actual being or entity as opposed to a symbol of it'. We agree: the subject of things is things as they exist in the world, not their representation. We believe the world is made up first of things - objects, facts, affairs, circumstances and concepts - and second of the stories we tell about them. In things, we set our stories against their things.

And while we are at it: since we believe that objects cannot be understood without enquiring about their pasts, what is the history of the word thing? It comes from the Old English thing, or assembly. And that is what things is: an assembly, a gathering, of writers and readers; a conversation held in words, in the real world, about the real world. 

Welcome, once more, to things.

things 12, summer 2000

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