The signifier is not the signified

– Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913)

The Imp – when she’s not imping – has a nursery-rhyme name; so, in fact, does her lover. Her sister’s has a Z in it and her father’s siblings’ names almost all (it’s a large clan) sound exciting and Celtic-poetical; and they’re all such gifts. What am I on about?

Ferdinand de Saussure was a very important linguist – he came up with a couple of things. Bear with me. Firstly, separating the synchronic and diachronic elements of (verbal) meaning, ie, the various different meanings a word has right now, as opposed to its etymological, historical development of meaning over time. This observation gradually disabused society (and leafy acedeme) of what’s known as the “etymological fallacy” – the idea that the older version of a word is the “true” one. Just think of Col. Bufton-Tufton (Ret’d.) who writes regularly to The Telegraph along these lines:


Your correspondent incorrectly used the adjective “sophisticated” to describe the elegant surroundings of the Beefeater’s Harim in Lower Ranja-Ullapool (“What I did in my summer holidays”,30th February).

You must surely be aware that this is the incorrect use of “sophisticated” – unless I failed to register the use of sophistry and a cheating, spoilt and sullied nature in our own tour guide when Mrs Bufton-Tufton and I last soujourned in Lower Ranja-Ullapool.


Secondly, but linked, he challenged the rarely-acknowledged, but very potent, notion that the word basically IS the thing; that there is some intrinsic link between a word and the thing it represents (respectively, the signifier and the signified).

The idea, hitherto, had been that as everything had been named in the Garden of Eden (ahem), the original name of something must be right, must be intrinsically (and, I suppose, sacredly) linked to that object. He said, simply, that names are completely arbitrary; as are any notional associations you may make between words (passion with rose, to cite another studier of language, Roland Barthes.) – they’re not “real” links. Another signifier (word) would do just as well.

Now, we risk running off into neuro-linguistics (why do cultures / languages choose particular new words to represent certain objects / notions? And have you noticed that the words for Big Philosophical Concepts in English are still linguistically Latinate, ie, they are very little changed – which is usually because they’re not much used….), but we won’t. No. Not today, anyhoo.

The reason I wanted to splash around in this one is that I think we do – no matter what common sense & Ferdie d S tell us – draw a near-superstitious link between a person’s name and that person. Just think how carefully parents choose their children’s names; authors’ their characters’; and perhaps what judgements you make of someone based on their first name before you meet them. We may not mean to, but we do. Think of the children who make up new names for themselves, to match their fantasy of themselves – and the pop stars who make it a reality.

So – even if first names are completely arbitrary, there is something powerfully resonant about them for most of us (ask a practising spell-maker what they think of the power of words…). Could it be that Saussure was not entirely right, then?

What’s in a name? Perhaps more than we dare to dream….