The word is not the thing.

Alfred Korzybski: The word is not the thing.

The word “cat” is not a cat. The word “hate” is not hate. The word “sad” is not sadness. When we read these sentences, we say, “of course.” There is a distinction between word and thing. This is obvious. The “word” is a sound conveying a symbol. The “thing” is an existential reality in its own right.

However, when we are embroiled in our lives, the reality of this distinction can often become lost in the heat and energy of our living. Think of racial epithets, and the anger, frustration, pain and sadness they provoke. Think of the hate that drives them. Think of being labeled dumb, stupid, cowardly, lazy, thoughtless and a host of other negative slurs that sap our self esteem, and often hurt us deeply.They are just words after all, but the emotions they evoke can be both deeply limiting and very painful.

Although there is always a gap between the word and what the word refers to in the world, it is easy for all of us to lose sight of that fact when we are the butt of someone’s viciousness or meanness. We cannot so easily slough off insults and angry words directed at us. It is all too easy in such circumstances to forget that “the word is not the thing.” And when we forget that, words are not just “symbols,” they become instead weapons that others use to inflict pain and sadness on us. It is a mark of our personal awareness and equanimity to not let “painful words” become painful things in our lives. What someone says of us does not make it so. Learn to filter what others say through your own inner locus of judgment, and you will free yourself from their verbal abusiveness. Always remember, the word is not the thing. It was Korzybski who first said in the early 30’s: The map is not the territory. You can’t get any nutrition by eating the menu.


About The Practical Philosopher

I am a retired Philosophy professor. I taught philosophy for 43 years, and I would like to share some of what I have found pursuing the fascinating journey of philosophy.
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6 Responses to The word is not the thing.

  1. Srinivas Bhattiprolu says:

    Its a nice article .Enjoyed reading it.

  2. I would like to link this to my General Semantics course website for students at Alverno College. Do you mind?
    Jill Newton Moore, Professor
    Alverno College, Milwaukee, WI

  3. Hal Holden says:

    If interested in GS and clear thnking you might like “The Tyranny of Words” by Stuart Chase

  4. Mike Grieve says:

    “The map is not the thing mapped” E.T. Bell, A quotation included by Korzybski, heading Chapter XVIII, ‘Science and Sanity’ (5th reprint, p.247).

    Being mindful that “the word is not the thing” maintains a perspective that has application in many aspects of life, not just to one’s psychological well-being.

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