'Just Semantics'? Professor Lederer Explains Meaning Behind the Cliche

Thursday, October 31, 2019

HOW STUFF WORKS -- Jenny Lederer, assistant professor and linguistics adviser in the Department of English Language and Literature at San Francisco State University: “Semantics is the study of meaning in context; it’s the investigation of how words, phrases and sentences evoke concepts and ideas in our minds. As we learn language, we attach meanings to words by learning what objects and concepts each word refers to.

“‘It’s just semantics’ is a common retort people use when arguing their point. What they mean is that their argument or opinion is more valid than the other person’s. It’s a way to be dismissive of language itself as carrier for ideas. It implies that ideas and arguments can be separated from the words and phrases used to encode those ideas. The irony, of course, is that the words and phrases we use are the ideas. There is no way to communicate a complex argument or message without language. Language and thought are completely interconnected. In fact, words shape concepts and can lead to drastically different understandings of the same thing. For example, inheritance taxes can be called ‘death taxes’ or ‘estate taxes.’ These two political phrases frame the same tax law in drastically different ways. Semantics really matters.”