The philosopher of great renown, Hilary Putnam, died several weeks ago. He wrote about a lot of things, including the meaning of meaning, pointing out that when we use a word, its meaning depends on the context in which we understand it. Putnam gave the hypothetical example of identical twins living on planets identical in every way except for the molecular component of what each twin called “water.” Putnam pointed out that although each twin would be using the same word, they would be referring to fundamentally different things.
But one need not go extra-terrestial to find examples of the importance of context in giving words different meanings even to individuals speaking the same language. I have found hundreds of examples merely by crossing the pond. Men here routinely address me as “love,” or “loverly” in contexts that I would find inappropriate in the States but rather enjoy over here. Alternatively, as I have mentioned before, my husband had to caution me not to use words such as “bloody,” or “knackers” with the freedom I might have used them in the new world.
I stumbled on another emerging example yesterday of the influence of context on meaning. It’s in relation to rapeseed oil which is called canola oil in America. The word “rape” is derived originally from the Latin term for turnip, but in America the name was changed for marketing reasons. It is still called rapeseed oil here in Britain.
But the marketing inhibitions associated with the term rape have recrossed the pond returning to Britain in a different context. Aldi, a superstore, has agreed to change the name of its Rape Yellow paint after a woman who had been sexually assaulted complained that Rape Yellow did not remind her of bright and cheerful sunshine but of a darker more disturbing event.
Hmm: learning a different language is even harder than I thought.