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No. 1436: Clever Use of Symbolism

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Clever Use of Symbolism

First | Previous | 2013-04-24 | Next | Latest

Strip by: Manyhills

Jon: Here's another drawing of a cow I did when I was little.
Jon: It's a cow.
Jon: See where it says "cow" next to that little arrow pointing to it?
Garfield: Clever use of symbolism.
{The comic is annotated with little arrows and labels for things}

The author writes:

This comic reminds me of learning German in secondary school, and the cartoon scenes in the textbook in which every item would have a little arrow with "das Rathaus" or "der Markt" next to it.

In a way, that is a conception of language: a list of words that are linked, by little arrows, to meanings. This is a perfectly adequate conception of language for most purposes, such as language learning, but it's somewhat lacking in depth. For one thing, the question of what meaning actually is is quite a difficult one, and one this concept somewhat elides.

It will probably not surprise you to know that there are plenty of other, more rigorous theories of language, and it will also probably not surprise you to know that no single one of them is entirely correct. One of the foremost ones was developed by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, and comes from the study he founded which we now call semiotics.

Semiotics is the study of signs, which are things that produce meanings. You will recognise this as a very broad definition, and indeed it is: all sorts of things are signs, from actual board-on-a-stake signs to adverts to words, and they produce meaning in all sorts of ways: through the content they refer to, through their construction of an addresser and an addressee, through their structure and format.

A sign, says de Saussure, consists of two inseparable parts: the signifier and the signified. The signifier is part of the sign you obtain via your senses. If someone says the word "cow" to you, for instance, you receive a mental impression of the sound of the word "cow". But the sign also invokes a concept, that of (in this case) 'cowness'; that's the signified for this sign. Note how both of these are mental constructs rather than actual things - the signifier is not the sound of the word "cow" but the impression it makes on you, and the signified is not an actual cow but your mental concept of what it is to be a cow.

The links between signifier and signified are arbitrary: there is no reason save historical accident of etymology that you should think of cowness when you hear "cow". de Saussure's theory was that signs get their meaning from the entire system of other signs surrounding them: that the meaning of the sign "big" only exists in relation to the meaning of the sign "small", as well as the signs "medium-sized" and "great" and "awkward" and so on.

When Garfield congratulates Jon on his clever use of symbolism in the original strip, he is referring to Jon's use of the sign "cow" to signify a certain type of animal - one distinct from "sheep" or "shrimp" or "deer" - knowing that there is nothing about the word "cow" itself that symbolises that type of animal, but instead cleverly using the entire system of signs the reader is familiar with to force that meaning upon them when they read his word.

At least, that's what I think the joke is.

Original strip: 2003-07-26.