The Meaning of Our Words

In the 1946 film The Big Sleep, private detective Philip Marlowe is called to the house of General Sternwood to discuss matters about the latter’s daughters. The two sit in the greenhouse, and the general recounts a blackmail incident involving his younger daughter. At one point of the conversation, Marlowe suddenly gives an interesting and knowing “hmm”, to which Sternwood asks, “What does that mean?”

Marlowe lets out a clipped chuckle and says: ‘It means, “Hmm”.’

Despite the private detective’s reply being impertinent and evasive, it is also an accurate reply. The word “hmm” does mean “hmm”.

Our language is full of interjections and verbal gestures that don’t necessarily mean anything beyond themselves. Most of our words – ‘baseball’, ‘thunder’, ‘ideology’ – seem to have a meaning outside themselves – to designate or stand for some concept. The way the word looks and sounds is only arbitrarily connected to the concept that it represents.
But the meanings of other expressions – including our hmms, hars and huhs – seem much more closely tied to the individual utterance. The meaning is inseparable from or immanent in the expression. These kinds of expressions seem to have meaning more how a particular action might have meaning.

Head over to Aeon as Alexander Stern discusses how our words mean.

(Image Credit: Devanath/ Pixabay)

My lady-friend used to complain when she said something, and I'd reply with 'hmmm'. She thought that showed I wasn't really listening to what she was saying. So, I switched to 'HUA', which I learned from Al Pacino, means, in Marine slang, 'Heard, Understood, Accepted'. Stopped her from complaining, but without harmony.
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