Chesterton means what he says

On November 25, 1905, in the Illustrated London News, G.K. Chesterton wrote (emphasis mine):

I received a letter the other day asking me what I meant by saying that, when we read another man’s statement, we do not read what he says, but only what he means. Of course, this truth is subject to some possible modifications. I admit that if a man sends us a letter written in the ordinary Roman character but composed in Zulu language, it is then very likely that we shall see what he says, but be at some slight loss about what he means. But if a man is writing to us, as I imagine the majority of our correspondents do write to us, not only in a language which we use ourselves, but in an idiom and verbal custom which we use ourselves- if, in short, he is not only using our language, but using our language as we are accustomed to use it- then the general proposition holds good: we see what he means; we do not even see what he says. For instance, the letter probably begins “Dear Sir.” Now, if it had begun “Beloved Sir’ we should not have known in the least what the man meant. We should merely have been considerably astonished at what he said. Or, if he had begun his letter “Darling Sir,” we should in the same way have been very much struck by the actual expression used, but the meaning might not be immediately clear to us, especially if he went on to say that unless a remittance was immediately forthcoming, he should be obliged to put the matter in the hands of solicitors. You and I receive these threatening letters by every post; they choke up the front passages; yet it never occurs to us that there is anything funny in the fact that the man begins by describing us as “dear.” This is because we never actually read the word “dear” at all. We do not read what the man says; we only read what he means. And what he means when he says “Dear Sir” is not in the least what he says. What he means is, “Because I consider you an atrocious brigand and a disgrace to human society, that is no reason why I, in addressing you, should omit the customary ceremonials of a citizen and a civilized man.”

I trust this rough example will serve to illustrate the point which puzzled my correspondent. Many others, of course, might be given. I myself, for instance, can never manage to use the ordinary salutations such as “How are you?” or “Very well, thank you!” as if they had any meaning at all. I use them in an entirely ceremonial sense. If both my legs had been shot off by a cannonball and both my eyes blown out of my head with a bombshell, and my right arm lopped off with a sabre, and if the General of the opposing army were to pause opposite me and, nodding in a friendly way, were to say, “How do you do?” if I had any feeble voice to answer with, I should say, “Very well, thank you.” Similarly, if I had cut him up with a great sword and left him lying about the place in pieces, I should put to him the ritual query, and if he did not answer “Very well, thank you,” I should be enormously surprised. In the same way, when I meet men in the pouring rain I always say, “A fine day,” and sometimes they disagree with me, which upsets me a great deal. But this is all individual. The main point is, that when men live together in a society they soon learn the significance which the mass of that society attaches to certain words or phrases. They soon learn to pay attention to what people mean; and they soon learn to pay no attention whatever to what people say.

Hilarious. And so very true. Well, provocative to say the least.

Tell me, does he mean what he says, and say what he means? Or does he mean what he means by saying what he says?

6 thoughts on “Chesterton means what he says

  1. Wayne Leman says:

    I’m voting for Chesterton saying what he means. But your last option might, instead, be right, but my brain is getting old enough that it’s harder for it to work its way around so much logical embedding. I am not so old, however, that I cannot recognize that’s this entire post, including your last sentence is fun, Mike.

  2. Theophrastus says:

    `I don’t know what you mean by “glory,”‘ Alice said.

    Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. `Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘

    `But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument,”‘ Alice objected.

    `When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

    `The question is,’ said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

    `The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master – – that’s all.’

    Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. `They’ve a temper, some of them — particularly verbs, they’re the proudest — adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs — however, I can manage the whole of them! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!’

    `Would you tell me, please,’ said Alice `what that means?`

    `Now you talk like a reasonable child,’ said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased. `I meant by “impenetrability” that we’ve had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you’d mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don’t mean to stop here all the rest of your life.’

    `That’s a great deal to make one word mean,’ Alice said in a thoughtful tone.

    `When I make a word do a lot of work like that,’ said Humpty Dumpty, `I always pay it extra.’

    `Oh!’ said Alice. She was too much puzzled to make any other remark.

    `Ah, you should see `em come round me of a Saturday night,’ Humpty Dumpty went on, wagging his head gravely from side to side: `for to get their wages, you know.’

    (Alice didn’t venture to ask what he paid them with; and so you see I can’t tell you.)

    `You seem very clever at explaining words, Sir,’ said Alice. `Would you kindly tell me the meaning of the poem called “Jabberwocky”?’

    `Let’s hear it,’ said Humpty Dumpty. `I can explain all the poems that were ever invented — and a good many that haven’t been invented just yet.’

    — Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, Chapter 6 (emphasis in original)

  3. Dru Brooke-Taylor says:

    “Does he mean what he says, and say what he means? Or does he mean what he means by saying what he says?”

    I don’t know but I have heard the phenomenon GKC describes referred to as apophatic communication.

    I have myself been caught out by not realising that a Russian speaker did not pick up a polite statement I was making as just that, rather than what the actual words meant.

    I have to admit, though, that I’d be surprised if a man who had been chopped into pieces said anything at all, yet alone “Very well thank you”, or for that matter, “Have a nice day”.

  4. Tim Bulkeley says:

    @ Dru: Ah, but then as my grandfather claimed, people were much better behaved in 1905 😉

    @ Mike et al. Undoubtedly Chesterton meant what he meant, by saying what he said. For had he said something different he would most probably (though not certainly) have also meant something different. And I believe that Chesterton usually “said what he meant” 😉

  5. David Ker says:

    My Spanish brain remembers a quote by Jorge Luis Borges to the effect that a translator had translated what he meant but not what he wanted to say. A nice pun in Spanish but I can’t find the original quote. El traductor dijo el que yo queria decir pero no lo que yo queria decir. Something like that.

  6. carl sweatman says:

    I would have to agree with Tim Bulkeley (as I often do), only I would respond slightly different. To the question: ‘does he mean what he says, and say what he means? Or does he mean what he means by saying what he says?’ I would respond: ‘Yes.’

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