For anyone that ever dabbled with online translators soon after their appearance on the Internet, you know all too well the definition of today’s word. After all, it’s the reason why you needed to respond to the civility “How are you?” with “I am good” instead of “I am well”, because the latter would sometimes translate the word “well” solely and specifically as a hole dug into the earth to reach a water supply (which made for some really weird sentences). Though we may not have realized it at the time, what was creating this distinction was semantics.
Coming directly from the Greek σημαντικός (semantikos), meaning ‘significant’, which finds its root in sema, meaning ‘sign’, our word, with the addition of the -ic suffix, which means ‘having to do with, pertaining to’, essentially deals with meaning and how we understand things.
While we have come to understand and chiefly use the term as it relates to the study of meaning in language, the original interpretation was for the study and meaning of something strictly more visual – signs and symbols. Writing in 1874, the North American Review, using the term with a leaning towards semiotic studies, notes that: “His rather complicated system of semantics, in which χρόνοι τρίσημοι, cyclic dactyls, etc., are throughout distinguished by peculiar signs.”
Strictly dealing with meaning as it relates to language through linguistics or philosophy, the first mention of our term can be found almost a decade later in an 1888 translation of Arsène Darmesteter’s 1886 work, Life of Words as Symbols of Ideas, where he writes that: “In asking what are the causes of change [in meaning], we touch on the most obscure and most difficult questions connected with semantics [Fr. la sémantique].”
In other words (pardon the pun), it is the specific words we use, how we use and deliver them, and what we intend for those words to mean or how we desire for those words to be understood that creates the study of semantics. A fine explanation of this can be found in the June 9, 1939 edition of the El Paso Herald-Post, which humorously mentions that: “You don’t call drunken-sailor governmental extravagance ‘spending’. You call it ‘investing’… This art is called ‘semantics’.”
Outside of specific language or form of communication interpretation, our term has also found minor usage as representing theories or descriptions about a sort-of generalized meaning, such as when the Southwestern Journal of Anthropology postured in 1957 that, “Linguistic field-theory..proposes just such a structural semantics as Hoijer suggests.”
Still, as the most modern and increasingly important usage of the term implies, semantics doesn’t just have to be about the language we use and select; moreover, it can also be about the type of language/communication that is necessary to accomplish a specific task. Of course, this relates to the programming languages of computers where, in 1964, the word relative to programming was first used by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) in their monthly publication, IEEE Transactions on Electronic Computers, which observed that: “A compiler and a description of the machine for which it compiles is a complete and formal description of the syntax (i.e., grammar) and semantics (i.e., meaning).”
Part of the beauty of how we use the words that we use is the flexibility of meaning, applications that we give them, and style with which we apply them; unfortunately, it’s also this flexibility and usage that can make understanding one another’s feelings or intentions by the words we use such a difficult task.