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?