Kate Burridge reviews 'The Utility of Meaning' by N.J. Enfield

Kate Burridge reviews 'The Utility of Meaning' by N.J. Enfield

The Utility of Meaning: What Words Mean and Why

by N.J. Enfield

Oxford University Press, $122.95 hb, 215 pp, 9780198709831

Words and their meanings, more than any other aspects of language, hold a special fascination for people. Perhaps it is because, unlike these other features (which are set down during childhood), they continue to be acquired throughout one's lifetime. Words and their meanings are also intimately tied to the life and culture of speakers, and all sorts of perspectives on the human psyche can be gleaned from their study.

It is not surprising then that words have received so much attention over the years from lexicographers, linguists and literaticians – and from the very folk who use them. But Nick Enfield's is a new and different approach, one that connects a wide range of discipline areas and offers an account of linguistic meaning that is like no other. The difference is his utilitarian view: '[T]o truly understand a word, we must ask not what it means. Instead, we must ask: What are people's reasons for using it?' Drawing on case studies from Lao (the official language of Laos) and occasional forays into English, Enfield investigates a range of semantic domains including emotion terms, landscape terminology, taste, and flavour expressions. By examining the private life of meanings (what we all carry around in our heads) and their 'public careers', Enfield shows how the usefulness of words can account for what they are like and why they are this way.

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Kate Burridge

Kate Burridge

Kate Burridge is Professor of Linguistics at Monash University. She is the author of many books, a regular guest on ABC radio and recently presented a TED talk in Sydney on Euphemisms in English.