02/16/2012 03:35 pm ET Updated Apr 17, 2012

Is That All There Is? What Does Anything Mean?

Meaning entered the English language sometime close to 700 years ago. The word is a derivative from the Old English verb mænan, which traces its origin to the Proto-Indo-European root *men-, which the Online Etymology Dictionary defines as "think, remember, have one's mind aroused." The same Proto-Indo-European root is responsible for Sanskrit manas, Latin mens, and English mind, all of which mean the same thing. If we seek to define meaning in its purest sense then, we must think of its simplest root, which directs us to mind and its oldest sense (and meaning) memory.

When I look up the the noun meaning in my English-to-Latin dictionaries, I find the following English cognates: sentence, intellect, interpretation, signification, and accept. One might see how meaning could be extracted from these words, however, it is not the primary sense of any of them.

Does this mean that the people who spoke Latin did not talk about "meaning"? They did, but the majority of the colloquial usages for mean and meaning of our time were expressed by Latin speakers through expressions that involve the verb to wish and to want -- velle. "What does it mean?" would have be expressed literally as "What does it want/wish for itself?" Interestingly enough, the Old Irish mian "wish, desire" derived from the same root that gave us mind in English. We began by trying to define meaning; we found mind, memory, and wish, want, and desire.

So what is meaning? What does anything mean?

These are English language questions and if we are to answer them then we must explore the English language.

Let's take for example T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," which begins:

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory with desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

In trying to unpack these lines, "Memory with desire" is striking given the context of our discussion of meaning because Eliot articulates a convergence of two things for which no single word exists in English. What is interesting about this convergence is the fact that both the concepts of memory and desire came to expressed in various languages from the derivatives of the Proto-Indo-European root *men-, which gave us meaning.

The opening of "The Waste Land" is loaded with meaning, as should be the case with any great poem. Eliot wants his reader to look back and discover memories of the English language. The opening of Geoffrey Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" -- dated to about the time when English vowels began to change to what we know them today in what is called the Great Vowel Shift and at about the same time that meaning entered the language -- is an account of April, albeit a more cheery one.

Eliot set down his poetry with extraordinary confidence in his ability to compose. Just as Vergil, Dante and Milton knew that epic poetry would give them a place in history, Eliot knew that the Modernist impressions he cast into memory would be enduring. In my opinion, what makes Eliot's poetry lasting is the fact that Eliot understood the meanings of words -- their beginnings. The poetic exercise is ironic for someone who understands, if only vaguely, that his words will be eternal, at least because of the fact that in setting down language in the present, the great poet must reach into the past, with the hope of being understood in the future. And even the most skilled readers and academics are liable to miss the mark in their readings. But that's not that only irony:

...Time past and time future
Allow but a little consciousness.
To be conscious is not to be in time
But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,
The moment in the arbor where the rain beat,
The moment in the droughty church at smokefall
Be remembered; involved with the past and future.
Only through time time is conquered.

Because of written word we have history and we have poetry. And Vergil, Dante, and Milton are still read today. For those of us living now, the language that can be set down today is inherited from the thinkers from the generations before us who dreamed, desired, wished, and wanted their minds, memories and meanings to be remembered.

I think that if I continue striving to set my words down while continuously reading what has come before the present, which in the future will be past, I shall find the consolation that existence intends for me to discover before I die.