Tag Archives: Rutgers University

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: What a Dog’s Bark Means

Ferdinand de Saussure

Words are powerful things. There are lots of theories as to why: a brilliant Swiss linguistic theorist named Ferdinand de Saussure suggested that they are significance bearers, and he distinguished between the signifier and thing signified. In as much as he sees the connection between the two as arbitrary, he never really explains the shape of words, like say why the word “bark” is used to describe the way a dog barks (where “woof” is obviously the onomatopoeic equivalent). But he did correctly talk about their capacity to carry a “sign” that points to the thing they are signifying.

The only way a word can lose significance then, is to strip it of its meaning by endlessly adding meanings to it. When I was a much younger person, at the very inception of my career as a writer, I remember distinctly being at a conference at Rutgers University in New Jersey where I heard one of the speakers explain this phenomenon: he pointed to a chair in the room and said that it could be called a stool instead of a chair because it could be used as a stool. A chair, he said, could also be a ladder, if you’re changing a light bulb, or a night table, if you keep your water glass on it at night. A chair, he said, is not just a chair and, he added, it can be quite something other than a chair. The word chair, he said, therefore has no meaning. Words, he declared, simply have no meaning per se. They are arbitrary; they are so flexible that they have lost their elasticity.

But he wasn’t finished. He went further: nothing, he said, has any meaning. And, he added, as a result, there are no laws or rules that pertain to any individual. All rules, he boldly added, are, like words, artificial constructs devoid of meaning. Life, he concluded, has no meaning. Such a point of view may sound like a grand reductio ad absurdum, and in fact it is. I should, too, note carefully here that this speaker was not kidding around: he actually meant every word he said. To his credit, he had followed the path whither it in fact leads, into the great abyss of nihilism.

I wonder, though, if words did have real meaning, where the path would lead. Put another way, one can see that “bark” can mean both the skin of the tree and what my dog does when a burglar jiggles the lock on my door, or “love” can signify the passionate act that a young couple makes as easily as it can connote the compassionate act of hugging a disabled elderly woman whom you’ve only just met in a nursing home. Yet even though the words “love” and “bark” have remarkable range, that doesn’t mean they are devoid of meaning. The man burgling my house, unless he is hearing impaired, decides to rob another house; (I have a Great Dane with a very deep and ferocious-sounding bark). The young couple doesn’t need to be told what love is, nor does the person in the nursing home receiving the hug. They know. They know because words do in fact have meaning. They bear significance because the thing they signify has meaning. The life of the disabled person has meaning. The passionate love of the young couple has meaning. And any burglar can tell you that a Great Dane’s bark most certainly has meaning.

So, I’m sorry to have to report to the famous lecturer of many years ago, that he was simply wrong. A chair can be used as a nightstand or a ladder, but it is still a chair. Words have meaning because, in fact, life does, too. And that, in case you were wondering, is the real meaning of a barking dog.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Primary and Secondary Motives

I imagine you’re thinking that this blog has a strange title. It sounds rather serious. “It would be nice to have a funny blog once in a while,” someone said to me in the hallway the other day. “Why don’t you tell a story about Poobar Meyers, your high school teammate, or the time you went into the woman’s restroom, then called the Ladies’ Room, when you were a lecturer visiting Rutgers University?”

Maybe a funny story can help us with both the serious title and serious idea of not imputing motives to people. In fact, I think the second of the two stories mentioned above may just fit the bill nicely. It happened when I was at the beginning of my writing career—I was writing under a different name than my family name, H.R. Jakes, in those days, but I leave that aside, as I won’t bore you with the details and you wouldn’t want to read what I was writing in those days anyway, so early in my career was it.

It was an overcast day, so I was wearing a raincoat, what in the New Jersey area was then called and may still be called a trench coat—like Colombo or Chief Inspector Jacques Clouseau—and the university kindly allowed me to use their gym. Accordingly, I had shorts on under the trench coat. En route to the gym, I wanted to stop off in the library to check a reference for my talk later on that day, so in I went, locating the book I needed (in the NDs, I think, an art book). Yet when I entered the library I knew, too, that I needed to visit the men’s room.

“It’s down this way, at the end of the stacks,” said a kind librarian, by no means circumambulating when it came to such practical instructions that provided me relief as I became increasingly desperate to find latrinal liberation. And thus it was that a fool rushed in where an angel would have feared to tread, for I bounded down the hall of stacks passing P and PA, with their suggestive Library of Congress numbers only urging my desire as might the sound of babbling brook. Indeed a man slurping from the water fountain performed that very task.

Before me lay two doors, one ivory-colored, the other horn-colored. From the horn-colored door, on the right, a woman emerged from the clearly marked Ladies’ Room, so I chose the ivory door on the left. Scooching in quickly, I walked into what seemed to be a lounge of some kind, taking a hard right toward the bathroom stalls. Alas, I could find no urinals, but I remembered that the campus I was visiting, Douglass College in New Brunswick, had been a few years earlier an all-women’s school. Indeed, it technically was still so, though now, as a part of Rutgers University main campus, it was merely one of several colleges that made up an essentially co-educational university. All students, male and female, take classes on all campuses. And that is why, I quickly reasoned, there were no urinals.

I went into a stall, kicked up the seat with one foot and took care of my mild emergency, standing and, as I was in a cheery enough mood, whistling a familiar song, “Jimmy Crack Corn …,”,arguably a song of indifference or social justice. (Interpretations of the song abound; I think I was just whistling out of sheer joy at having found a toilet.)[1]

And that’s when it happened: there was a very nervous rumbling of toilet paper coming from the next stall. “Oh,” I thought, “I probably disrupted the fellow’s newspaper reading.” I half thought to apologize, but I decided that it would be too strange for me to say anything. Instead, I re-girded my athletic attire and went out to wash my hands, only to notice to my left what I assumed to be a condom dispenser. “Well,” I figured, “I suppose that’s par for the course these days on a college campus” (it was the 1990s). But upon closer inspection, as I toweled off my wet hands, I saw that it was a feminine napkin dispenser.

“Well that’s weird,” I thought. “You’d think by now they would have removed these from the men’s rooms.” And that is when, of course, it donned on me: this was no vain dream, but the gates of ivory and horn both led to the same place: I had been all along in the woman’s room. The nervous toilet papering person was a woman. My attire—seemingly nothing but socks and sneakers covered by a trench coat—must have seemed quite strange to her as she peered out through the small slit between bathroom stall doors.

So I decided to leave forthwith (of course!). But as I left from the ivory-colored door in came another woman, who looked at me dumbfounded. “Inspecting,” I said as authoritatively as I could, hoping she would not notice my legs bare save socks and shoes.

“Oh,” was all she said, and she then left.

Now my motives were pure—as pure as flowing water. But it must have appeared, of course, rather bad. Woman number one likely thought I was a pervert; woman number two knew I was a liar. Not good!

But the motives, primary and/or secondary? That’s where not judging comes in. Woman number one knew that at least one of my motives was to use the bathroom. But she might have thought that my primary, or at least secondary, motive was to be perverse, to use the woman’s room for whatever reason, probably an opprobrious one. The other woman, if she saw my unclad calves protruding from the bottom of my trench coat, probably figured on about the same thing. I never found out what woman number one looked like, so I don’t know if she came to my lecture that afternoon. Woman number two, I am glad to report, did not.

[1] Cf. John Kroes (2012): http://www.cracked.com/article_20032_5-terrifying-origin-stories-behind-popular-childrens-songs.html.