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26 March, 2005

Really perceiving words

For those who saw 'Jaws' when it was first released in late 1975, the title itself must have added to the impact – the very thought of a monster defined by its mouth contributing to a sense of unease before the film even began.  However, I was four years old at that time, so it was several years before I saw it myself, several years over which I assimilated the title merely as a title – four letters and a typeface which represented a film.

By that I mean I never thought of the meaning behind the word, and it didn't inspire thoughts of literally a maxilla and a mandible containing lots of teeth, articulated by immensely powerful muscles. It was somehow more abstract, the connotation divorced from the literal definition. Mention 'Jaws' and I'd have thought of the film, perhaps the film poster, but not specifically teeth.

Another example would be 'Doctor Who'. The character's creator presumably intended to define a slightly mysterious figure of scientific authority, but I grew up with the name appearing weekly in TV schedules so just absorbed it without question; it was merely the person's name, and it wouldn't have made a significant difference to me if he'd been Prof. Cryptic or indeed Inquisitor Probe (perhaps not...).

The same applies to place names. Mention Blackpool and I think of a tacky seaside resort, not of a specifically-coloured pond. In my mind, the concept of Newcastle as a city in Northeast England doesn't inspire the briefest thought about the age of its defences. Actually, I think concatenation is a special case, but the point still applies.

To go a stage further, if a word is repeatedly seen within a distinctive logo, it almost ceases to be a word, being transmuted (I nearly said 'reduced', but that's inaccurate) to an assemblage of letters in a typeface, conveying a visual impression rather than a textual one.

I'm not sure I'm explaining this adequately; speaking to Helen a few minutes ago, she understood what I was saying, but not why I thought it noteworthy that the 'mental shorthand' conveyed by groups of letters can become separated from their original meaning as words. Perhaps that's just too obvious to a linguist, much like a geomorphologist might understand the mechanism and rate at which a river can erode rock, without realising just how incredible that really is.

Yes, I deliberately ended that paragraph with a preposition. Ha – that'll teach her....


Err ... you ended the paragraph with a verb.

Posted by Jon. at March 27, 2005 12:05 AM

Thanks, Jon. What was I thinking of?

Or do I mean "of what was I thinking"? ;)

Posted by NRT at March 27, 2005 03:23 AM
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