Words Don’t Mean What They Mean

The essay “Words Don’t Mean What They Mean” by Steven Pinker is about the impact of conveying speech in different contexts has on relationships and communication. The author is a professor at Harvard University in the school of Psychology. He was born in the year 1954 in Montreal, Canada. He managed to go the United States in 1976 after graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree from McGill University. Steven is a well-acknowledged writer from his works such as The Language Instinct, The Stuff of Thought (which is where this essay is from), How the Mind Works, among other books. 

The author also does write for the New York Times and The Atlantic publication. Through his complete devotion to research on social relation and linguistics, he has received prizes from American Psychological Association among many other organizations (“About | Steven Pinker,” n.d.). To add on, he is a holder of 8 doctorates and a number of teaching awards at Harvard. This essay which is a chunk of the book “The Stuff of Thought” was first published by Time on the 6th September 2007.  There is hypocrisy in communication is therefore not just about the words but also the context in which they are used.

The essay begins with the author analysis the Movie Tootsie, in which in the first encounter the characters being of the same sex have an open conversation about what they would like to hear from men. But on the second encounter when one of the characters comes as a man and confronts the female character, she reacts in an unanticipated manner yet it is the same speech she initially seemed to love (Pinker, 2007, p. 113).

Based on the author, human beings do a lot of role-playing and laying lines on each other when talking. People do this and expect the same from others. Nonetheless, in the process, people yearn for the truth to be spilled out for ones and all. There is hypocrisy in speeches. Steven perceives that people find it hard to say what they mean because of the fear of their words altering their relationship with a conversational partner. As a result, when individuals are conversing they are attentive not only to pass on their message but to continue retaining a level of bond and familiarity.

This essay is addressed to the general audience since everyone is a victim of hypocrisy when it comes to speech.  Pinker makes sure that he retains his relation to his audience by using ordinary examples. He uses scenes in popular movies that most people might have found themselves in. For instance in an episode of Seinfeld, where George is asked by his date to join him upstairs for coffee and after declining the offer he realizes what ‘coffee’ really meant. This example makes it easy for the author to reach out to his audience. Additionally, the author has avoided the use of cumbersome vocabularies to give a reader an easy time.

The author has an ironic and critical attitude towards the topic of his article. The article is well organized with a clear and direct to the point body.  Steven does not burden his audience with having to think what the intended meaning of a certain sentence is. He is elaborative and clear on his main points. What the author says is true and valid. Take for example when a guy is courting a lady, although the lady knows what is going on she still has to act as though she has no clue. She is, therefore, mindful of her speech to avoid showing interest and at the same time not push away the guy.

In conclusion, people use indirect speech as a way of maintaining their dignity. Using words recklessly might cause hurt feelings. A conversation often conveys a message entirely different from how it sounds. To be able to understand the true meaning of a speech ones should consider the context in which that expression is formulated.


About | Steven Pinker. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://stevenpinker.com/biocv

Pinker, S. (2007). Words Don’t Mean What They Mean.