MySmarTerms 5: The Semantic Triangle: Words don’t mean; people mean

Foolish Questions” (William Cole)

Where can a man buy a cap for his knee?
Or a key for a lock of his hair?
Can your eyes be called an academy
Because there are pupils there?
In the crown of your head, what jewels are found?
Who travels the bridge of your nose?
Could you use in shingling the roof of your mouth
The nails on the end of your toes?
Could the crook in your elbow be sent to jail?
If so, what did he do?
How can you sharpen your shoulder blades?
I’ll be darned if I know, do you?
Can you sit in the shade of the palm of your hand
And play on the drum of your ear?
Do the calves of our legs eat the corn on our toes?
Then why does it grow on the ear?
Can the calf of his leg eat the corn on his toe?—
There’s somethin’ pretty strange around here.


According to the Oxford Dictionary, the 500 most used words in the English language have at least 14,070 different definitions. This is an average of 28 meanings per word. So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that our communication attempts sometimes fail because of misconceptions and ambiguity. We need to have clear and precise concepts connected to our terms in order to design reliable termbases and glossaries.

Given that one of the goals of terminology management is to facilitate communication and avoid misunderstandings and confusion, it would be helpful to understand the basics of the semiotic triangle, not only because it introduces and explains some of the basic elements upon which terminology is grounded, but also as a foundation for further reading and research.

Englishmen Charles Kay Ogden and Ivor Armstrong Richards wrote the book “The Meaning of Meaning: A Study of the Influence of Language upon Thought and of the Science of Symbolism” (1923), and the semantic triangle was the means they used to explain that understanding comes from within the people rather than from the words they just interpret or, as the saying goes, words don’t mean; people mean.

In their book they presented three theories: The Meaning Theory (There is not a single “correct” meaning associated with each and every word because each word means something different to each person); the Definition Theory (In order to avoid this ambiguity we need to define terms or concepts) and the Symbol Theory (words evoke images and personal meaning is based on experience). Communication breaks when people attempt to communicate through the use of arbitrary words. Words have no exact or clear meaning, and meaning depends on context.

You will find different triangles with different terminology, so I mention here the most common ones: The Sign or Symbol or Term (Representation) is the actual word, term, or sign; the mental image or idea that the person has of this representation is the Thought or Reference or Concept. If the Thought is adequate, the hearer is able to connect it to the Referent or Object.

semiotic-triangletriangle orage










All meaning is elicited through symbols, or is arrived at through personal interpretation. The meaning does not go with the word, it emerges by the person hearing it, thinking about it and ultimately arriving at meaning. (See this Prezi presentation for more examples and also the video I included as Source 6 below).

Richards and Ogden’s triangle has been challenged over the years by other semioticians, such as Umberto Eco, who maintain it is overly simplistic. According to Sue Ellen Wright (see Source 2 below) “One of the major deterrents to using the triangle is its numerous interpretations and the variable of terminology associated with the nodes of the triangle”, but then she adds that the triangle is useful “particularly for non-linguists approaching terminology practice for the first time”. And even in more advanced terminology work and studies, the semiotic triangle has proven to be useful as a basis for further research. See, for example, the article “Semiotic Triangle Revisited for the Purposes of Ontology-based Terminology Management” by Igor Kudashev and Irina Kudasheva, in which they adapted the traditional triangle and suggest an alternative model for their terminology project TermFactory. Also, take a look at Source 5 below, in which the authors compare the triangle used in traditional Terminology theory versus the sociocognitive Terminology theory.

Terminological data must be handled efficiently and effectively through careful terminology planning and analysis as we constantly process specialized and complex information on how objects are perceived, how we come up with concepts for new or existing terms, and how these perceptions are represented and described. So just by looking at the terminology works mentioned above it is more than evident that understanding the semantic triangle is a relevant topic for terminologists.

The Semantic triangle is also known as Triangle of Semantics, Triangle of reference, the Semiotic Triangle, the Referent Triangle, Triangle of Meaning, the Ogden-Richards Triangle, and the Meaning of Meaning Model.

In my next SmarTerm I will talk about Designations (Term, Appellation, and Symbol) a subject closely related to this topic.

Sources and further reading:

  1. Introduction to Richards, by Peter Muntigl
  2. Semantic Triangle of Meaning for Interpersonal Communication. A YouTube video by Nadine CiChy, Associate Professor at Sinclair Community College
  3. Semiotic Triangle Revisited for the Purposes of Ontology-based Terminology Management” by Igor Kudashev and Irina Kudasheva
  4. Standards for the Language Industry, by Sue Ellen Wright in Terminology, Computing and Translation (Google Books)
  5. The Meaning of Meaning Model by
  6. Towards New Ways of Terminology Description. The Sociocognitive Approach, Rita Temmerman (in Google Books).
  7. Understanding and being understood by Dr. Sandford I. Berman (PDF shared by the Department of Communication of the University of California.
  8. What Do You Mean: A Brief Look at Ogden and Richards’ Theory of Meaning by A. Bosco. 2002

2 Comments on “MySmarTerms 5: The Semantic Triangle: Words don’t mean; people mean

  1. Pingback: Terminologia etc. » » Blog: terminologia e traduzione

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.