Sally McConnell-Ginet argues that semantics matter. Meaning (or “LEXICAL SIGNIFICANCE”) relates to social practice and to social change–but not in a linear way (i.e. this linguistic change caused that social change). The relationship between word meaning and the world is nuanced. She covers a lot of ground. I am going to attempt to work with a bunch of her concepts and talk about a scene from The OfficeMichael offers up the “man meat.” The gist of the scene is that Michael has decided to grill out for a bachelor party he is hosting (during work hours) for Bob Vance–of Vance Refrigeration. He walks into the party, carrying a plate piled high with ribs and steak, and in an attempted display of machismo, he asks of the attendees (male warehouse and office workers: “Who want’s some man meat?” Dwight interprets the statement based on Michael’s intended meaning, saying: “I do. I want some man meat.” And Jim re-interprets, “Michael, Dwight wants your man meat”–implying that Dwight wants Michael’s penis.  Michael obliges Dwight–he gives him some steak.

There is a lot of interesting stuff at play in this scene. First, McConnell-Ginet offers up the idea that meaning is established in communities of practice, and that within communities of practice some people are more experienced (and thus have more meaning-making-power) than others. In the scene I described, Michael and Dwight are performing what they believe to be “manly” identities. But, their attempt is ridiculed by Jim, who has a higher status in the community of practice–the warehouse space; he is able to cast judgement on the attempts of those who are uninitiated (or denied access to a particular community). I guess you could argue that Michael and Dwight have a community of practice of two, though–since they are able to communicate meaningfully with each other. That’s one of the reasons the show is so funny; Michael often refuses to ‘defer to the experts’ (as McConnell-Ginet  explains).

McConnell-Ginet says there are three components to “lexical significance”: 1) Semantic representations; 2) Reference: 3) Conceptual baggage. Let’s look at how “man meat” is made meaningful through these three ideas: 1) Semantic representations–these are what speakers “know” when they have fully acquired a word (p. 508). For example, Michael knows that when he uses the phrase “man meat” the food being described cannot also be called “woman meat.” Michael also knows that “meat” is a category of food that will not include carrots or pasta. 2) Reference–referential meaning is what helps people communicate and work with one another. Reference includes the connections between the ‘world’ and the words. In this case, we can think about the first time something was called “man meat” and whether or not it has a stable referent in the world. The interaction from the “man meat” scene suggest that man meat has several real-world referents, but clearly not all of them are equal. Dwight and Michael use a less-valued connotation of the word (using it to indicate the less-common referent). And we get to laugh about their ‘semantics.’ 3) Conceptual baggage–this is the meaning that is conveyed that might not even be said or meant by the speaker. In this case, Michael and Dwight ‘trigger’ inferences about gayness in Jim (and in viewers) by talking about ‘wanting’ man meat. Neither Dwight nor Michael meant or said anything about gay relationships in their exchange, but these ideas were nonetheless made available because of the conceptual baggage loaded into the phrase I want some man meat. 

McConnell-Ginet also talks about linguistic change. In the case of “man meat” I guess I would offer that it is an example of ‘repackaging’–a new label pasted on an ‘old’ thing (penis). This is interesting though, and something I don’t think McConnell-Ginet discusses (or if she does, I missed it). In this instance of change, the conceptual baggage of penis was intended to be carried unto the new form, man meat. Man meat is a euphemism, but it doesn’t seem to me that it is a phrase all-too-concerned with decorum or obfuscation of meaning. But maybe I am wrong: Does calling the penis “man meat” reflect changing attitudes or ideologies? I suppose that one thing that McConnell-Ginet doesn’t consider is language change for the sake of dramatic effect, irony, or humor.

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