Part 1: Lost in Concepts

4. What Is a Word?

So much of our lives involves using words.  And for me they seem part of my world in the same way as houses, cars, trees, rocks, people, etc.  It’s easy to see them this way because they are such a large part of everything we do.

I wake up and yell “Bad dog!” because he pooped on the floor.  Then, because I’m babysitting this dog while the owners are away, I worry, What if I can’t get the poop off of the carpet?  Then my mind moves to worries about my achy back, or whether I hurt my friend by something I said, or my boss’s disappointment with my work.  Words and the significance I put on them seem to be involved in every minute of my day.

I often feel like a fish in water.  Word-based expressions and word-based inner thoughts are what my world is made of.  What else is there in life except thoughts and communications made up of words?  Well, there is also eating, sleeping, and bathing, but more often than not my mind is chattering about some worry, doubt, or hope even while I’m doing those potentially wordless activities.

My world is chock-full of word symbols that determine good/bad, right/wrong conclusions.  These symbols also identify problems to be solved, worrisome outcomes, and other issues to be concerned about.

But what exactly is a word?  Except for proper names such as Sam or Emily, every word comes from creating a category.  Each word is a symbol we create as a shortcut for communicating a general category.

We see a variety of four-legged animals: a small brown fluffy one, then a large black one with a smooth fur, then a mid-sized white curly-haired one.  By putting them all together into the same grouping, we create a concept.  Then we assign a word to the concept/category; we give the whole grouping the name dog so that we can use it to think, write, and communicate.

We start with many different sizes and colors of actual dogs, and we end up with only one small word dog, which represents our choice to combine them all into one concept/category.  We eventually learn that the word dog stands for a different concept than the words cat or horse.  Words are a system of symbols we can speak or write in order to communicate.  

Then we encounter other things that are round and roll across the floor.  We eventually create another mental-grouping/category/concept and we call it ball.  We learn that dog stands for a different mental grouping than ball.  It’s a bit like sorting things into piles.

We now have symbolic representations (words) of the kind of thing that barks and has four legs and the kind of the kind of thing that is round and rolls along the floor when we push it.  Once we learn the category and the word that goes with it, we can quickly say dog when we see a barking, four-legged thing that we have never seen before.  The differences in size, color, etc., no longer seem to matter because we know the concept and the word.  

Words are very exclusive – they don’t allow much flexibility.  A dog cannot be a ball; a ball cannot be a dog.  A word, as the symbol for a concept grouping, creates a world of differences with no overlap.  It can’t be both, it can be only one or the other.  A word is a this-not-that categorization.  

In using the words dog or ball, I leave out all the differences I first saw with my own eyes such as size, color, etc.  I replace my experience of seeing the many different dogs and many different balls with shortcut tags we call words.  I smooth over and minimize the importance of the uniqueness of each actual Being I experienced.

I forget that when I apply the one word dog to both very young dogs and to older ones, that I often misrepresent the full reality.  When I say “Bad dog!” about what this three-month old puppy did on the living room floor, I omit relevant details, such as that it takes an average of six months to housetrain a puppy.  

I also omit my part in this learning process.  I may need to recognize that the puppy doesn’t know what I’m saying when I tell him the proper place to poop.  It may help to give this dog a small treat to develop an association that pooping outside is what I want and pooping inside is not.  I’ve found that I am a master at using words in a way that pushes responsibility onto others, even small cute puppies.

The following quote illustrates how words leave out uniqueness.  

If I tell you to imagine a pink flower, you see a pink flower.  I don’t know what kind of flower it is; I don’t know the shape or the size of this flower; I don’t know exactly what shade of pink it is.  But you do.

One person might create a mental image of pink baby’s breath, while another imagines a pink carnation or a pink rose.  Different sizes, different shades of pink, different images; same word.

I find I easily forget that words are this-not-that tools – each word creates a separate bucket to indicate a general grouping.  And in order to do that, the word leaves out details that make the reality of the experience unique.  I forget that words carry only narrow slivers of a full context.  

Words also leave out the surroundings in which we experience dogs.  We see dogs running, sleeping, eating, playing – experiences that brought with them the interconnectedness these animals have with their environment.  The word dog tells us nothing about the interconnectedness of the dog in the world.

In a sense, our word-tools are out of context because they leave out uniqueness and cannot carry the interconnectedness of the life experience from which we extracted them.  That’s why it’s become so important to me to refer to words as only limited tools.

But the problem is not that words are limited tools.  The problem is that I use them as if they weren’t.  I apply them to situations they are not suited for.  I use them as absolutes as if they are truth-tellers, as I put judgmental labels on myself, other people, and puppies.

It’s like trying to use a shovel as a scalpel.  A shovel is a tool suited to digging a hole; a scalpel is suited to slicing skin during surgery.  Each is a tool. But a shovel can’t do the work of a scalpel.  A shovel is a limited tool because it doesn’t work for any of these other purposes.  

As the limitations of word-tools became clearer to me, I learned to minimize their importance.  Even now, I often remind myself of the full reality they leave out as reason to avoid taking them too seriously.  This reduces the tension created by believing they are more than this-not-that buckets.

The not is something a word-tool grouping emphasizes.  You are a woman not a man, dog, ball, etc.  I am a man not a woman, flower, car, etc.  Whatever anything is, as expressed through word-tools, includes a lot of “not”.

¹ Jody Whiteley, Best Sleep Hypnosis Story Ever (accessed November 3, 2017),, 7:26
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