James Shelley has been churning out some insightful thoughts on writing. This time, he’s focused on the words that we are using and the meanings behind them There are some definitive definitions of a word (e.g. The plant is green) that allows a direct meaning transfer from one individual to another. Then there are floating signifiers, or what I like to call a “loaded term.” These words vary in meaning because they require perspective and interpretation in order to derive meaning.

To quote from the article:

Floating signifiers: when used well, they can galvanize large groups of people to change their behaviour, even though the words themselves actually mean different things to different members of the group β€” even though β€œthe signifier and the signified [come] to be constituted simultaneously and interdependently.” (Ibid 60) In other words: floating signifiers do not emit meaning β€” they absorb whatever meaning is projected on them.

It’s important to note the distinction when it comes to writing or communicating. Recently I was being roasted in a creative review due to misconstrued feedback. The client stated to Account that he wanted a “clinical looking” logo. The problem with this, coming from the Creative perspective is the vague understanding of clinical. You and I can both interpret that word in different contexts. It’s important to ask the right questions to your client. Arriving at a common ground of terminology and like-minded strategy will save you rounds of meaningless iterations on a design with no direction.

I love how Shelley takes this further and states how you can use floating signifiers to your advantage. You can tap into the meaning directly connecting to your reader’s assumptions without having to elaborate. The right words can trigger the right feelings and like-minded attitudes.