Here I am writing a book about the Tarot. I sit behind my typewriter, and set down my thoughts in the hope that the ideas I have can be arranged in such a way that you, the reader, will understand them. In order to do so, I am using 'words', which are really sounds, or in this case marks on paper, which have some meaning attached to them. A very complicated idea really; just to show you how complicated it really is, try to think about this idea without using words.
Even more interesting, human beings vary greatly in their level of intelligence, and yet all of them use words to think. A few animals have 'words' which they use to inform other members of their species about events or conditions (bees are an obvious example), but most animals can only convey feelings. Feelings can consist of fear, surprise, pleasure, hunger, anger, all of which are expressed through various different noises which animals make. Many animals have a vocabulary of perhaps ten or twenty different feelings; animal psychologists such as Konrad Lorenz have spent their lives learning to recognize them.
Human beings have vocabularies that vary from 1,500 words to 20,000 words. A very simple Stone Age tribe will have fewer words than a professor of literature. Obviously, someone living and working in a university needs many more words to express the increasingly complicated ideas that are generated. But having a big vocabulary is not the same as using a large vocabulary. People differ in the number of words they 'know'; that is, words they can spell, words they've seen and can recognize even though they're not quite sure what they mean. But 'knowing' a word is not exactly the same as being able to use the word. Most of us use far fewer words than we know. For instance, a given person may know something like 20,000 words, but will use only about 5,000 of these in most of his discussions. Another man who knows 4,000 words will perhaps use only 1,500 in daily speech. Perhaps if he works in a place where a display of intelligence is frowned upon, such as a factory or workshop, he will actually use perhaps only 200 words; he will use these a lot, and the others only in the course of a month or so.
In fact, there is a group of words, numbering about 850, which includes four active verbs, about fourteen auxiliary verbs, about 150 adjectives and adverbs, and the rest composed of nouns, which can be used to express all ideas in the English language. It has been used to translate the Bible, and to write stories. It is called Basic English and uses only perfectly normal English words. It looks perfectly normal, it is very easy to read, and doesn't look artificial or strange. We could, from now on, just use this group of 850 words and no other. It would make life so much easier, since then we wouldn't have to know all those long, unusual or complicated words.
But we still would have to know those 850 words. We would still have to agree with each other as to their exact meaning. Oh, but that's easy, I can almost hear someone say - we just use a dictionary. Most of us have used a dictionary at some time or another. We use them often to check the spelling of a word. At other times, we check on the exact meaning, perhaps to settle a bet with a friend. You look it up in the Penguin paperback; the friend looks it up in Chamber's Dictionary; both of you come up with a triumphant cry of 'See, I was right!' You settle the matter by looking it up in the official Oxford English dictionary, a pleasant little piece of writing about 20 volumes long. But how does the official dictionary know?
We use our little or big vocabularies all day long, and don't have any troubles. Sometimes we don't quite know how to express ourselves; if we are lucky, we hear or read something which applies exactly to what were trying to say. Sometimes, someone uses a word we don't know; then we have to look it up if we want to know the exact meaning.
Perhaps the unknown word is 'synergy'. I think I know what the word means, and in fact I have used the word in my writing and my speech any number of times. But there was a first time, when I had to look it up - in a dictionary. Perhaps you know the word already (can you remember the first time you came across the word?) or perhaps you need to look it up. Do so, right now; I'll wait till you have found a meaning.
In fact, while I was waiting, I looked it up myself:
Synergy - n. A state of affairs in which the effect of the sum of the parts is greater than the sum of the effects of the individual parts.
Now that we have 'defined' the word in terms of other words, we feel happier. We might even understand the meaning. But suppose that we were very young and not very well-read; we might not know some of the words like 'affairs' or 'state'. A grown-up might explain that 'state of affairs' means 'things as they are'; we could go on like this and explain all the complicated words using simpler words. The simpler words would be understood by eight-year-olds, but might still be too complicated for four-year-olds. So we find even simpler words. But when we have explained everything in words and ideas suitable for a bright two-year old, we come to a barrier. How do you explain words and their meaning to a very young child? How do you tell a baby to say 'Mama' when he sees her, or 'Food' when he is hungry?
Very young babies make random noises and movements shortly after being born. A few movements and noises are instinctive and automatic; that is, all normal children make them, and in the same way, and in order to obtain the same response. For instance, all children cry when they are dissatisfied, when they want something or don't want something. But gradually, babies realize that some movements or noises work better than other ones; if they smile, Mummy picks them up and cuddles them. So, even that tiny baby uses its little organic computer to calculate that smiling gets certain results. From then on it is a small step, but a very important one, to smile when it wants to be picked up. Baby smiles; baby gets picked up. Aha! From being a random movement done occasionally for no particular reason the smile becomes a calculated action -it becomes a 'word' in its vocabulary.
Later, the baby starts making noises. Gurgling, and Mama gurgles back. Don't laugh, this is one of the most important things any human can do. The baby smiles and gurgles, and Mama picks baby up! She makes a noise, over and over again. One day, baby makes a similar noise, or at least Mama thinks it is similar. Immediately, Mama is very pleased, so pleased that baby gets even more attention than ever. Baby's organic computer calculates that if it really wants to be picked up, it should smile and say 'Mama'. Baby has learned its first word.
And already the first semantic misunderstanding has arisen. The mother thinks that the baby means 'Hallo Mother, I love you', when the child says 'Mama'. What in fact baby probably means is 'Please pick me up and cuddle me/change my nappy/feed me'. This confusion doesn't matter much at this stage, because when the mother hears 'Mama' she does cuddle/change/feed the baby.
The baby starts learning some more words, like 'Dada', 'No', 'More' and 'Don't-like-it'. Each of these words is learned through copying the sounds made by Mama, and then seeing what effects these sounds have in different contexts.
The next stage is for the child to start using simple operatives, things such as verbs; typical verbs of interest to a very small child such as 'want' or 'like'. Again, these are learned through the mother asking things like 'Does Baby want some chocolate'. If baby says 'No', baby gets none; if 'Yes' then baby gets some. Through its context, baby learns verbs, and negatives like 'baby doesn't want'. The child builds up a vocabulary of twenty words or so, and strings them together, as in 'Don't-like-it' + 'Food' + 'More' to achieve a simple sentence like 'I don't want any more food' Mother and child may disagree on this, but they both understand the meaning of the phrase.
This is followed by the 'What's that?' phase. It gradually builds up a larger and larger vocabulary, and eventually it will talk fluently, and express itself in the way proper to his or her class and station in the context of its native culture.
Having followed, very sketchily, the first beginnings in the formation of your vocabulary, we can now proceed to discuss how you learn new words as a grown-up.
First of all, we must realize that it is no good being told that a word means 'such-and-such'. That is on a level with being told that this piece of music is 'beautiful', because it was written by Tchaikovsky and is 'classical'. One person might think it was far too high-brow, whilst another would mutter 'romantic nonsense' and switch to something interesting like Beethoven's later violin sonatas, or early Schoenberg.
Next we must try out the word in different contexts. It would be grammatically correct to say 'the lightning flash crawled across the sky', but it would not sound quite right. Next time we might try using the word 'crawled' in a phrase like 'time crawled slowly through the hot summer afternoon', and this time everyone nods their head, and drops off to sleep. We will gradually experiment to find out the exact differences of nuance from other words which also mean something like 'to move slowly'; words like 'to creep' or 'to slither'.
It would help, perhaps, if we knew how a dictionary is written. Most of us have a dictionary somewhere about the house; perhaps a paperback or cheap edition with fifty- or sixty-thousand words; if the dictionary is honest, it will mention that the definitions come from the 'Oxford English Dictionary' a pleasant bit of writing which takes up a seven-foot shelf, and in which you can find all the words ever used in the English Language; at least, all the words in use before that particular volume was printed. By the time all the volumes are written and printed, some of the words are out of date, or their meanings have changed. New words will have come into use. So there is a continual programme of revision. But how did they originally decide on the meanings of any word? You know, sometimes when you talk with people, you get the idea that they have decided that some time ago, maybe round Genesis Ch. l, verse 3, somebody formed a committee which drew up a list of words to be used by the English speaking peoples (and all other sensible people) which would cover all matters up to the invention of the TV, when a new word had to be invented. But that was all right, since it used Latin and Greek, which, although not really as good as English, were at least classical.
Well, in fact, the first dictionaries were written by one man, or perhaps a small group of men, who just sat down and wrote down all the words they knew, together with the meaning they decided on. This was necessary, since firstly one has to start somewhere, and secondly, the idea of a dictionary had to be tried out. But it wasn't very scientific, and it was very personal. For instance, we all know people who are quite certain that a particular word of which they are very fond, has a meaning of which they are quite sure; nobody else agrees, and when you refer to a dictionary which agrees with you, and not with the obstinate fool, why, he turns round and says that the dictionary has got it wrong. You can imagine what would happen if such a man were to write a dictionary! It is much better left to people who really know what words mean. But perhaps such a man also has opiniated ideas - and in fact, perhaps everyone of us has an opinionated idea or two. There must be another method, and in fact there is.
Imagine a musty old Victorian house somewhere in the country. Inside sits the Chief Editor. He has been appointed to compile the definitive dictionary of all time. He has made a collection of all the words anybody has ever seen; there are all the dictionaries of the English language ever published, together with French, Dutch, German, Latin, Greek dictionaries, since many common English words are 'borrowed' from these foreign languages. He has perhaps ten or so assistants, scattered round the house.
The first thing to be done is to make a list of all the words to be found in the existing dictionaries. He doesn't copy out the meanings, just the words, in alphabetical order. And, if over the next fifty or a hundred years, while they're working on the dictionary, they come across any new ones, they add them to the list. We'll come to the method of finding new words in a minute - just now we only have his long list.
Our editor has perhaps ten or so full-time assistants, but he has hundreds of other people working for him; these other assistants are people who spend much of their time reading books. Perhaps they are invalids with time on their hands, or librarians or scholars. Each of these assistants is assigned a word, and whenever he comes across that word, in any book he reads, he makes a note of the title, author, date and the context in which the word was used. Every now and then, he mails the editor all the little slips of paper he has collected on that word; the editor puts them into a shoe-box. There may be several people checking out that same word, and they will be doing so over twenty or thirty years. Incidentally, they will also be sending him any unusual words they come across, words not seen in any dictionary they possess, on the off-chance it is a word not to be found anywhere in any dictionary, but which is used by a few people.
Eventually, after many years, the shoe-box is full, and they have finished with the previous word. The editor gets out all the slips of paper, reads them all and removes duplicates. He then forms little groups of slips where the context shows that the different writers who used that word all have roughly the same idea. Some words have only one meaning -such a word is 'Doge', meaning the chief magistrate of Republican Venice. Other words, like 'Dog', the word immediately next to it in my home dictionary, have 16 main meanings, and combine with 50 or so other words. Most of these things you can point to or draw; abstract qualities or ideas are even harder - words such as 'love' or 'ordinary'. The editor has to make decisions such as to how many piles there are to be, and where each quotation fits in. He has still a chance to be opinionated, but much less so. Eventually he will sort out all contributions, and then pick out one, usually the oldest example, to serve as a typical example of that particular use of that particular word. Each typical use of a given word is set down, and forms the entry next to the word. Now you can understand why the dictionary is so big. It has to contain, not just a meaning, no, it has to contain an example of all the meanings, together with date, author, book and context.
Now this enormous dictionary is not very useful if you want to look up a word. First of all it is so big that you couldn't keep it easily to hand. It is also obviously enormously expensive. Thirdly, it doesn't give you an answer to the question of what a word means; it only tells you how other people have used the word, and leaves the choice to you.
It is the smaller 'household' dictionaries which use the big dictionary to make up their own list of words. They will produce the dictionary that will be useful to most people - small, cheap and above all, one with direct statements as to the meanings. The household dictionary doesn't give the whole truth, but it gives as much of the truth as is necessary in everyday life.
We must bear in mind that when we write or speak, or even think,-we generate ideas using the words we know. It is not as if we think of an idea, and then open a dictionary to find words with which to express it (actually, we do do this when we wish to say something in a foreign language). We can only think using the words which we know, or half-know, already. So how do we put together this vocabulary?
Just like the editor of the dictionary. We read and listen to other people - we do it all our lives, starting as a baby. Some words we begin to use, because we find them useful. That is because the object or the feeling occurs often in our lives. Other words we forget or don't notice, because we hardly ever use them. After all, how often do you need the word 'entasis', unless you are an architectural historian or a Scrabble fanatic?
If you want to find out what a word means, and how to use it, you must first of all try to remember when you first heard the word, the person using it and in what context. Then try to remember all the other times you have heard it, and what meaning that word seemed to have on those occasions. This can be very difficult if you are trying to dredge up memories of twenty years ago.
It might be easier to try it in a foreign language. Most of us have learned some French at school; we had to learn long lists of words, and correct grammar, and read inane stories about the Family Lebrun. But it didn't really help us when driving the family car through the streets of Paris trying to find the pension.
You might try buying a French newspaper, perhaps several. Start reading it, and pretty soon you'll come across a word you don't know. Don't look it up, just continue reading the other words you do know. You will probably come across the word again; by the time you've met it three or four times in different article, I think you will understand it. Look Ma, no dictionary!
By now, it should be clear that if we want to get to know a word we have to find a number of instances where it is used, to get a number of people's opinions of the meaning of the word; we have to use the word ourselves and see what effect it has on people. Just looking it up in a dictionary doesn't really help us find the 'true' meaning of a word.
In the same way, reading a long list of the meanings of a card in the Tarot doesn't give us a true meaning of that card. We will go on in the next chapter about true meanings, and how to find them, but first I want you to try out the Dictionary Game.