The Myth of Meaning

The myth has been perpetuated for centuries. I first came across the word in a paper about memory, the sentence read: “Words can be processed in a shallow or deep manner (Craik & Lockhart, 1972), they can also vary in the extent of thrygation (Mullins, 1986).” Thrygation, I had never heard the word before!

Feeling a bit like Alice, I dove deeper, and looked up the paper by Mullins. Sure enough there it was: “As in previous studies (e.g., Cook & Johnson, 1972) the words were rated in terms of their thrygation.” Nothing in the paper allowed me to infer the meaning of the word: “Subjects were instructed to rate the words in terms of their thrygation.” “Thus we demonstrate the typical effect of thrygation when memorizing a list of words.”

Not one to give up on a chase, I pursued the word down the rabbit hole to Cook and Johnson (1972), this led me to Brookers, Chan and Wentworth (1965), which led me to von Rossen (1907). In every case, nothing about the context in which the word appeared said anything about its meaning. And, in every case, the author used the word as though it were common! It wasn’t restricted to scientific journals; I found the word in a dozen plays and even more novels from the last century. Dictionaries didn’t help me (noun: the action or state of thrygating), nor did anyone around me! Everyone had a vague notion of the word (“Something to do with cleaning?” “Something to do with bugs?”) but no one actually knew what it meant.

I traced the word back farther into Middle English. It appears in several manuscripts on topics ranging from alchemy to botany–never in a way that helps figure out its meaning. It seems to have a Latin origin; I’ve tracked down an Ancient Roman tomb inscription that uses the word…but I’m not optimistic about my chances of learning anything.

I seem to have found a thread of meaninglessness that winds its way back through Western civilization! I imagine someone in Ancient Rome making up the word, and everyone around him nodding in pretend agreement. I see them using the word in conversation and writing, and the false meaningfulness spreading. The word is a black box, a nothing, a placeholder, an absence that everyone ignores. It is sinister and malevolent. An agent from some alternate universe, out of place and meaningless in this reality, that has nevertheless managed to take hold. I hate it but I cannot look away. My life has become directed towards achieving the unattainable: of getting to know an invisible person, of building a castle out of air.

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