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There’s a blaze of light in every word

The stoning scene from Life of Brian came to mind today after Putin referred to the special military operation as a “war” which is illegal in Russia.

That Life of Brian gag is pretty antisemitic; and also inaccurate since their language around the divine name didn’t have the signifier/signified problem that spoken English has.

I’ll give an example: in writing, you can tell the difference between a chair, and the word for chair which is “chair”, by using quotes. Lojban has something similar with the prefix cmavo zo. Like quotes in English, it’s used for all kinds of quoting. Chair is the signified, “chair” is the signifier.

In spoken English, you’ll rarely get confused, because usually it’s clear from the semantic context whether a word is a signifier for another signifier, or for something signified. For example 1972 novella The Word for World Is Forest is presented without quotes around the word “forest” but even so, it’s clear that you don’t need to grow literal branches and leaves from your mouth when referring to that world.

Confusion isn’t the main problem with trying to refer to taboo words. In the Monty Python sketch, one of the jokes is that even though the priest is only quoting the forbidden word, he is still saying it. Modern English solves taboo signifiers by using words like “the L-word” without having to use the signifier itself. It’s a meta-signifier: a signifier for another signifier.

That wouldn’t’ve been a problem in the Second Temple era, since to refer to the name of the highest, you’d say “השם” in Mishnaic or “שמא” in Aramaic, which means “the name”.