Vol. XLI No. 1 — January 1963

Words, Words, Words

Conrad Hahn

“What do you read; my lord?” asked Polonius, doping to trick Hamlet into an incriminating answer.

“Words, words, words,” replied Hamlet.

And with that reply, the Prince of Denmark made neither sense nor non-sense, except to call attention to the difficulties of all human communication by means of words, whether oral or written.

In 1938 Stuart Chase wrote a bestseller, The Tyranny of Words, a book that popularized the modern science of language, semantics. Sometimes referred to as “the study of the meanings of words,” this science has produced a fairly extensive literature of its own.

In 1941 the novelist Hugh Walpole wrote an introduction to the subject, Semantics, in which he tried to simplify the ideas of the poet-professor, I. A. Richards, in The Meaning of Meaning. About the same time Professor S. I. Hayakawa published Language in Action, a book that had unusually wide circulation as a Book-of-the-Month selection.

Semantics tries to show that most of our words each have many meanings. One of the pioneers in this field, for example, Count Alfred Korzybski, had to discuss anthropology, biology, botany, psychology (especially conditioned reflexes), education, etymology, genetics, mathematics, logic, physics, neurology, ophthalmology, physiology, and psychiatry in his monumental work on General Semantics, Science and Sanity. The late Harry L. Haywood, one of Freemasonry’s most gifted writers, helped Count Korzybski when he first arrived in this country to render his early writings into readable English, suitable for publication.

Freemasonry, we say, "is primarily a speculative art or science.” That means that Freemasons are concerned with ideas — especially the universal ideas of friendship, morality, and brotherly love. Masons necessarily depend on the use of symbols, particularly the language symbols called words, to perform their speculative labors.

The study of words, how they acquire meanings, what they do to people who use them and hear them, should interest every Mason. Masonic labors, so far as the ritualistic work and additional instruction are concerned, are almost exclusively verbal. In fact, many a brother remembers his Masonic experiences as almost wholly a verbal experience in which he listened and listened, and then was asked to listen some more.

One of modern Freemasonry’s most serious problems may be precisely a problem of semantics — the repetition of words and phrases that evoke warm and appreciative memories of benevolent and noble aspirations, but that are not enriched by new and convincing experiences. The records of lodge membership and lodge attendance suggest such a conclusion.

A word has almost as many meanings as the people who use it. Words were invented as symbols of objects or actions to save men from repeating a motion or reproducing a thing. Bessie, the cow in my barn, is not the same cow as Blossom in yours; but they have enough characteristics in common to enable us to understand each other when we’re talking about cows at the County Fair. Nevertheless, when I use the word cow, I’m really thinking about a particular bovine animal named Bessie.

More complex ideas differ greatly in the component parts of which they are made up. My home is of different construction from yours; the members of my family are not the same as yours; our wants and our methods of satisfying them may be entirely different. Yet we both seem to understand each other when we talk about “home.”

But it is just in this area of abstract ideas that words have more and more meanings in proportion to the number of people who use them. Consider the use of the word home again, as spoken by two different brethren when the activities at lodge had come to a close:

“So long, fellahs, the folks’ll be glad I’m getting home early tonight!”

“Well, I guess there’s nothing else to do but go home.”

Words at an extremely “high level of abstraction,” like democracy, mean completely different ways of life, different political systems, and different human values to the American and the Russian, both of whom describe their government as a “democracy.”

Relief is a frequently used word in Freemasonry. But does it mean the same thing to the member who went through the three degrees but never took part in lodge activities again, and the brother who joined the members two Saturday afternoons to paint the barn of a neighbor who had fallen and broken his leg?

Which brother usually finds fault with the Masonic home, the one who’s been there to visit a brother and to help in a program of service, or the one who has never seen it but who “knows” that one of the guests isn’t being treated right? Brotherly love and truth are the ideals of both craftsmen, but are they really talking about the same things?

All of us try to put “the best possible construction” on our affairs, particularly our own behavior, by choosing words and verbal symbols that will be most widely interpreted as “laudable” and “good.”

Sometimes we do this justifiably for the benefit of those with whom we communicate. The owner of Charley’s Steak House naturally prefers to advertise his specialty as the “choicest filet mignon,” instead of “the best piece of dead cow meat.” No one wants to have his dining pleasure spoiled by the intrusion of an ugly idea, even if it is more exact and descriptive.

More frequently, however, we use highly abstract words to imply action or accomphshment that we are not really justified in claiming. Sometimes this becomes “the language of diplomacy” or the “hard-hitting political speech.”

The following passage from Mary Jane Ward’s The Professor’s Umbrella satirizes this semantic distortion that lies at the root of all “propaganda” and manipulated public opinion:

How he loathed having to parcel out his minutes as if they were droplets of rare vintage; but now that the university was bursting at the seams with students, a teacher’s life was dominated by a schedule.

“We have accepted this great challenge,” said President Norton, “and we are proud to be able to announce that we are in complete control of what less optimistic persons may have considered a desperate or even a hopeless situation." — By this the President meant that the tin huts and Quonsets had been erected in time for the opening of the fall term.

“And to those of you who may have had doubts about Tamarack University being able to marshal a teaching staff equal to the severe demands of this inflated load, may I say that the teachers of America have risen nobly to this, Education’s clearest call in all history.” By this he meant that the old-time faculty members had been persuaded to forget that their salaries had not kept pace with the rising cost of living, and had therefore enabled the university to add new teachers without seriously dislocating the budget.

“And despite all this, I am happy to inform you that Tamarack University insistently and sensibly refuses to relinquish its plan for the New Campus. However, my fellow-Americans, this doesn’t mean that the great dream can become reality without your generous support. We welcome you young men and women. We shall never cease in our relentless determination. . . .”

“. . . to grab every student who comes our way, provided we can bed him, and provided we can continue to make these teachers see that classrooms built for thirty students can be made to seat a hundred and thirty.”

Professor Hayakawa wrote in his book,

By using the radio and the newspaper as instruments for the promotion of political, commercial, and sectarian balderdash, rather than as instruments of public enlightenment, we seem to have increased the infectiousness of savagery of thought. . . . Political leaders hypnotize themselves with the babble of their own voices.

TV has not improved the situation either. The last political campaign saw the establishment (among other remarkable tricks of linguistic legerdemain) of a restricted, disparaging meaning for the word intolerant. To disagree is to be labeled intolerant, regardless of how sincere, how courteous, or how intelligent one’s disagreement may be. Yet real democracy must perish without constructive dissent and a “loyal opposition.”

No truly moral man can be completely tolerant. He must be intolerant toward injustice, falsehood, greed, and tyranny. The founders of this nation believed in a positive, mutual tolerance as the only mortar that could bond together the ashlars of a people’s republic, but they had to be intolerant of arrogant authoritarianism and “divine rights.” They shed their blood to prove that intolerance.

Words, words, words, says a cynic impatiently; but they are terribly important! Freemasons, above all others, should be concerned about the way they are used and acquire meanings. If brotherly love, benevolence, and truth are really going to build the universal Brotherhood of Man under the Fatherhood of God, Freemasons must learn how to make these verbal symbols effective in the communal activities of mankind.

“Ritualistic utterances,” said Dr. Hayakawa in a paragraph that should interest Freemasons particularly, “may be regarded. . . as accustomed sets of noises that convey no information, but to which feelings (in this case group feelings) are attached. Such utterances rarely make sense to anyone not a member of the group. The abracadabra of a lodge meeting is absurd to anyone but a member of the lodge.”

May this not be pointing at one of the troubles of Freemasonry? How many of the absent, uninterested members of our Fraternity regard the ritualistic work as “the abracadabra of a lodge meeting”? The “group feeling” enjoyed at meetings is fine; it’s worth keeping alive in one’s memory by membership in the lodge. But the rest of it — abracadabra!

Freemasonry’s ultimate objective was never the work within the lodge. It was the soaring edifice that rose outside and far above the rude hut in which the craftsmen labored. For this each individual was carefully trained.

When Masonry became “speculative,” its purpose was still to build outside the lodge. Its objectives had to be expressed in verbal symbols — words, words, words — like brotherly love, relief, and truth. For this the individual is to be carefully chosen, thoroughly trained, and consciously inspired to become a spiritual builder in the world in which he lives and moves and has his being.

Semanticists also point out that ceremonials and ritual activities have a purpose beyond the stimulation of group feelings within the organization. They recognize such language activities as “directive utterances” which say something about the future. While such “directive language” can never say all that might conceivably be said, the promises implied in such ritualistic language are a kind of “outline map” of “territories to be.” As such, they are among society’s most important activities for giving it purpose and cohesion.

“Directive language,” however, is always interpreted by individuals. This is tremendously important to any effective solution for Freemasonry’s problems of poor attendance and lack of interest. What does each new member understand by “the three great tenets” of the Fraternity? What does the individual’s interpretation of those ideas persuade him to do? It depends largely on his own experiences and desires — one can also add, his prejudices. What he does later about those tenets will really depend on how his understanding is modified or intensified by his initiatory experiences.

This is why the investigation of applicants is so important to a lodge of Master Masons. Not every one is capable of responding to the “directive utterances” of the ceremonials. Some can be taught and trained; some lack the spiritual awareness ever to make it possible.

Consequently, the officers of a lodge must try to understand the individual background and philosophy of each new member. It leads to common understandings of the words used in Freemasonry; it also creates a deeper bond of fellowship and brotherhood. Masonic initiation and instruction must be directed at the individual candidate, and then related to his own experiences and idiosyncrasies. It is the individual who matters.

The ritual is not enough for every initiate. Since words mean to the individual what his own experiences and feelings have taught him, the great affective words by which Freemasonry hopes to make him a wiser and better Builder must be explained to him in terms that he can understand. To inspire him to action, those words must acquire meanings for him through Masonic experiences that give him pride and satisfaction. Such experiences have to be arranged for him. He must be given opportunities to act brotherly love, relief, and truth. The symbols he acquired in lodge must “come alive” in real life situations.

“Be ye doers of the word” is good semantics. It is also the best technique for Masonic education. But if a brother will respond more promptly to “Look here, Master,” than to “I beg leave to inform your Excellency,” let’s use the language that will produce the appropriate response. Words, words, words — they can be the tools of a Builder.

The Masonic Service Association of North America