Phenomenology Online

A Resource for Phenomenological Inquiry

Language itself is a source of meaning


Words often mean more than they mean. Sometimes the surplus or transcendent meaning is symbolic as in myth, or rhetorical as in political text, or motivational as in graduation speeches, or inspirational as in prayers. And sometimes the surplus meaning is phenomenological. It is phenomenological when the meaning is evocative of lived experience, when it re-awakens some possible human experience in a manner that is immediate and yet prompting reflection. Thus language is a source of meaning; it makes our experience “recognizable.”


For example, in the phenomenological study of secrecy we would find a rich source of meaning in language. The term “secret” derives from secretus: “separated, set apart, secret.” When I hold a secret from someone then I experience a certain relational tension: I seperate myself to some extent from a full involvemet in the relation. Thus, even the etymology of the term secrecy makes us aware of the relational significance of human secrecy. This is an important observation: secrets are always relational. Thus the language of secrecy already suggests that secrets are commentaries about human relations, as well as commentaries about the relation of the person to his or her inner self or inner life. In the experience of secrecy the relation has been altered or complicated: we feel that a mutual openness has been disturbed, a relational transparancy has been clouded.


Language is not neutral with respect to human sensibilities. If I say that I want to share some information I may get a likewarm response, but if I say that I want to share a secret then I may draw attention. There is something about the word “secret” that sparks people’s curiosity and compels their attention. Mention “secret” and we are all ears. “Secret” occurs in various interesting linguistic connections. For example, “secretary” retains meanings of someone (a notary, clerk, or officer) who is entrusted with confidential, secret, or private matters. A secretaire is still a piece of furniture or cabinet in which private or secret papers or objects can be kept.