Know Your Words · The Art of the Dictionary

The Bedeviling Symbol of the Octopus

0130181842Earlier today, while thumbing through some books in search of blogspiration, I found myself lazily flipping  the pages of The Dictionary of Symbolism, where I came across an intriguing entry for octopus.

After teasing us with a somewhat poetic description of the beast–“Its arms, depicted as rolled up in spirals, form an impressive symmetry around the body with its two eyes, the whole suggesting a head surrounded by snake-like hair”–goes on to suggest it might have been the inspiration for the mythical figures of Medusa and the Scylla, “the mythical sea monster who menaced Odysseus and his crew.” Then it goes on to talk about s cuttlefish, and how the ink emitted by both these animals was deemed a symbol of their ties to “mysterious and otherworldly forces.”

0130182215aAnd what “mysterious and otherworldly” forces might those be? It didn’t care to elaborate, but the implication was that, like the ink, they were dark.

Fortunately, there are other symbol references that are more willing to lay it on the line. Among them are the Continuum Encyclopedia of Symbols, which declares “Even in earliest times, [the octopus] became a symbol of the spirit of the devil and of hell in general because of its eight tentacles.”

Okay, that’s dark, but what the hell does possessing eight tentacles have to do with the devil or hell? (Get it, possessing?)

Sadly, Cirlot’s A Dictionary of Symbols doesn’t offer much more.

[The octopus] … has the same significance as the dragon-whale myth. As a decorative motif…. It is related to the spider’s web and the spiral, both being symbolic of the mystic Center and of the unfolding of creation. It also has been credited with a merely existential significance.

Clearly, Cirlot cares more about dragons than octopi, because one must read that entry to find out just what that significance is. (You’d think you could read the entry for whale as well, and I did, but that one is rather thin too.) I took the time to read the entry for dragon, and I was glad to find it wasn’t wasted.

The dragon … stands for ‘things animal’ par excellence, and here we have a first glimpse of its symbolic meaning, related to the Sumerian concept of the animal as ‘adversary,’ a concept which later came to be attached to the devil.

Now we’re getting somewhere! With it’s odd, alien form and serpent-like appendages for arms, no wonder the octopus was the inspiration for terrifying creatures like Medusa and sea monsters who emerge from the inky deep to imprison us or drag us off into the dark realm they call home. It’s the stuff of dreams, or better yet nightmares!

As it turns out, it is the stuff of dreams and nightmares (but mostly the latter). This is why, in addition to symbol references, it’s worthwhile to have a few dream dictionaries hanging around the shelves of your library, for the meaning of the images, icons, and symbols conjured by our minds at night often make themselves known in our dreams.

For example, consider the following excerpt from the octopus entry in The Dream Dictionary from A to Z:

In their positive form, [octopuses] reflect emotional depth and the ability to direct your energy in many directions without losing your center…. [They] may also be associated with a person or situation that has many ways of holding or affecting you, such as a mother or a debt.

0130181905The Watkins Dream Dictionary of Dreams offers a similar, albeit slightly more sinister interpretation of the dreamed octopus. According to this text, octopi in dreams are noteworthy because:

For a two-handed human, the idea of having eight legs, each with a different function, might suggest an inability to focus on one thing at a time, or a tendency to disperse one’s essential energies in unfruitful activities. Octopi may also be threatening, and indicative of emotional minefields—lunging unexpectedly at a human being from the depths of the ocean.

Crisp’s Dream Dictionary, after echoing the previous sentiments about mothers (what’s that about?), simply notes that an octopus in a dream can “symbolize any unconscious fear” capable of “dragging us into its realm of irrational terror.”

Sounds rather adversarial to me.

PS.) And what do octopuses have to do with hockey? Find out here!


Note: This is the second version of this post. There was a GLARING error in the first–I completely misread a passage in one of the texts quoted here and built my post around that misunderstanding. Luckily, I was able to fix it but, boy oh boy is my face red. I’d like to chalk it up to staying up late or drinking too much coffee, but the sad truth is that I’m just a moron sometimes. My apologies.

Know Your Words

It’s, Like, Totally “Existential”!

skeleton-endIf you’re a news junky like I am, you’ve no doubt noticed an uptick in the use of the word existential, as in such and such a thing is an “existential threat,” by commentators of various stripes and political persuasions. No doubt this increase is the result of America’s decision to install a mad man as president, but as the following results from a (very) quick search of Google news suggests, the range of people and things to blame for or facing “existential threats” (or “existential risks”) is quite wide.

Farmers and landowners are experiencing existential threats
“Agricultural property tax increases are becoming an existential threat to family farmers and rural land owners in Ohio.”

Trump’s views on immigration pose an existential risk
“Trump’s hard-line views on immigration pose existential risks [to the restaurant industry].”

Climate Change is an existential threat to the international community
“The reality of climate change is not up for debate, and its consequences must not be either. As a country, we face the choice of denying this existential threat.”

Refugees have been called an existential threat to the United States
“No one should expect refugees to be admitted should they pose an existential threat to a nation.”

And finally,

Balan music faces an existential threat from Pop Music
“With the increasing popularity of folk songs and modern pop and R& B music, the ancient Balan musical culture is facing an existential threat.”

Given the global reach of American cultural exports, I don’t doubt that interest in Balan folk music is on the decline, but is it really correct to say that it is facing an existential threat? To find out if there is was any guidance on using the word, I did what few folks are willing to do these days: I consulted a dictionary!

According to the Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, the word existential (which is derived from existentialis, the Late Latin word for existence) means “of or based on existence.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word in almost the same way: “of or pertaining to existence.”

Okay, seems like these dictionaries are kind of phoning it in here, but no big deal. I get it: the term existential pertains to existence. However, if this is true, then the converse must also be true, which means that if existence is NOT on the line — that is, if thing A is not causing the demise of thing B, or if thing B is not at risk of extinction due to the presence of thing A — then the use of the word existential in such contexts amounts to little more than hyperbole and really ought to be dialed back.

With this in mind, let’s revisit our examples!

1) While agricultural property taxes may indeed put farmers out of business and compel landowners to sell off their acreages, it’s unlikely that they will end these peoples’ existence.

2) Do Trump’s views on immigration pose an existential risk to the restaurant industry? Given that, as the article points out, “The industry’s kitchens are filled with immigrant workers. And many immigrants start their own restaurants, sometimes bringing tastes from their original country to new audiences,” it easy to see how thy could have a negative effect and even lead to the closure of some restaurants. But will they bring about the end of the industry? I doubt it.

3) Is climate change is an existential threat to the international community? Given that it could submerge some island nations (e.g., the Marshall Islands) lead to more intense storms and more costly weather-related disasters, the threat is certainly real. But will it wreak havoc on the international community and break bonds between nations? I don’t have a crystal ball, but it could. Thus, I’d say existential threat just might fit here.

4) Are refugees an existential threat to the United States? No.

5) And finally, does Pop Music pose an existential threat Balan music? Nope. Sure, it could lead to (further) decreases in it’s popularity, but will it wipe it off the musical map? Probably not.

Existential and Existentialism

This guy knew a thing about living, its fulfillment, and predicaments.

In all fairness, of course, the use of existential isn’t always intended to be so over the top (even though it sometimes comes off that way). More often than not, the word is used to convey significant or irreparable change and/or damage to the essence of something (i.e., a farmer’s way of life, the restaurant industry, or even the United States). This brings us to the relationship between the words existential and existentialism, the philosophy that focuses on the sometimes fractious relationship between existence and essence.

Of the philosophical dictionaries in the Anachronist Library’s Collection, only one — the Harper Collins Dictionary of Philosophy (HCDP) — has an entry for existential. It reads:

[In existentialism] 1) The vivid experience of the reality and varied dimensions of the present. 2) The awareness that one IS and that one is an acting, choosing being creating and experiencing one’s self-identity. 3) The experience of being intensely involved in living, its fulfillment, and its predicaments.

And while all the others contained definitions for existentialism, only two others discussed existence in a way that seemed to mesh with the discussion of the word existential presented here.

For example, Anthony Flew’s Dictionary of Philosophy notes that, “Existence is basic: it is the fact of the individual’s presence and participation in a changing and potentially dangerous world.”

Similarly, A.R. Lacey’s Dictionary of Philosophy opines, “A feature of human existence, for existentialists, is that men are active and creative while things are not…. men are conscious of the contrast between themselves and things, and their relations with other men, of their eventual deaths, and their power to choose to and to become what they are not.”

Clearly, in most if not all of the articles above, the authors were not writing about the end of something’s existence so much as the reality of living in a changing and potentially dangerous world.