Linguists use odd words. Some of them sound very strange, but actually refer to something fairly ordinary, when you think about it. They're ideas where "there ought to be a word" -- so a word gets invented.

I recently learned one of these words which I've found to be very useful. It's influenced my "mental language" for understanding all sorts of thing related to communication. This word is "implicature".

"Implicature" was coined by a guy named Paul Grice to help describe situations in which what a speaker means is not the same as what she actually says. It happens in all sorts of ways. For example, suppose someone says "I went to the grocery store and saw my grandmother." Most people would assume that the speaker was stating that he saw his grandmother at the grocery store, but of course that's not what was said. There is an implicature that the grandmother was seen at the grocery store. It can be more subtle, however. For example, an indirect answer counts: “Are you going to the party?” “I have to go to a wedding.” The speaker didn’t say that she’s not going to the party.

The above examples are fairly straightforward. But implicatures can have teeth. “Some power companies are not environmentally insensitive.” This sentence has an implicature which says that most of them are insensitive. Politicians are of course masters of this kind of implicature.

In fact, the concept is so broad that it can be seen almost everywhere, especially in conversation. Sarcasm and irony are kinds of implicatures. I like the word “implicature” because it’s a pointer to the fact that there are always unspoken assumptions. Communication requires a context. This simple idea is behind one of the most complex (or complexly argued) terms in modern philosophy, literary criticism, and historical analysis — deconstruction.

"Sound and fury, signifying nothing"... maybe, but that "signifying" itself has a lot of life in it. Signify something today!

-Doug Cutrell, Powerset Engineer