Monday, September 6, 2010

Words, Letters, Spaces and Meaning

Here are a few interesting (to me) but trite observations about how single words, letters and even spaces can radically alter meaning in language. I began thinking about them during the night after Mrs. Cyclingprof and I  watched an episode of "Inspector Lewis" on PBS. At one point in the program, an Oxford professor says to Inspector Lewis: "You're smarter than you look," which Inspector Lewis quite correctly takes as a backhanded compliment. But imagine if the professor had said: "You're even smarter than you look." That would have conveyed a clear, not-at-all-backhanded compliment. Who would have thought such a simple adverb could so profoundly affect meaning, as understood by both parties?

A still more powerful word - perhaps the most powerful in the entire English language - is "not," which changes the very sign of a sentence from positive to negative, altering meaning by 180 degrees. The simple word "not" may not only change the meaning of a sentence but its political significance as well. Consider the implications of (1) "Life does begin at inception" versus, (2) "Life does not begin at inception."

Even changing a single letter of a single word can dramatically alter meaning. "He broke a law" means something very different from "He broke a jaw," or "He broke a claw."

Finally, even changing the location of empty spaces between letters can dramatically affect meaning. For a simple example, consider the difference between "I am used" and "I amused." Recently, I read a book (I think it was a work of fiction) containing several more interesting and complex examples of changing sentence meanings by moving spaces; unfortunately, I cannot recall which book.

UPDATE: The book I was trying to think of was Richard Russo's latest (and wonderful) novel, That Old Cape Magic (Knopf 2009), in which Russo describes a baffling sign above a bar, which reads:
heresto pands pen d
asoci al hourin har
mles smirt hand funl
etfri ends hipre ign
bej usta ndkin dan
Devil spe akof no ne.
 It looks like nonsense or some inscrutable Middle English quotation, until the spaces are reordered and punctuation marks are added:
Here stop and spend a social hour in harmless mirth and fun. Let friendship reign. Be just and kind and evil speak of none.

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