You Shall Know a Word by the Company It Keeps

John Rupert Firth? Melanie Mitchell? Ludwig Wittgenstein? A. H. Schutz? Apocryphal?

Question for Quote Investigator: A dictionary defines the meaning of a word by using a sequence of other words. Occasionally, a definition employs a picture. Linguists and artificial intelligence researchers have suggested that the denotations and connotations of a word emerge via an examination of the words that commonly occur adjacent or nearby. This notion is reflected in the following adage:

You shall know a word by the company it keeps.

Would you please explore the provenance of this statement?

Reply from Quote Investigator: The earliest close match known to QI appeared in 1957 within an article by linguist John Rupert Firth titled “A Synopsis of Linguistic Theory” which was published by the Philological Society of London. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[1]1968, Selected Papers of J. R. Firth 1952-59 (John Rupert Firth), Edited by F. R. Palmer (Frank Robert Palmer), Chapter 11: A synopsis of linguistic theory, Reprinted from: Studies in linguistic … Continue reading

As Wittgenstein says, ‘the meaning of words lies in their use.’ The day-to-day practice of playing language games recognizes customs and rules. It follows that a text in such established usage may contain sentences such as ‘Don’t be such an ass!’, ‘You silly ass!’, ‘What an ass he is!’ In these examples, the word ass is in familiar and habitual company, commonly collocated with you silly—, he is a silly—, don’t be such an—. You shall know a word by the company it keeps!

QI believes John Rupert Firth should receive credit for the expression under investigation.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading You Shall Know a Word by the Company It Keeps

References

References
1 1968, Selected Papers of J. R. Firth 1952-59 (John Rupert Firth), Edited by F. R. Palmer (Frank Robert Palmer), Chapter 11: A synopsis of linguistic theory, Reprinted from: Studies in linguistic analysis (Special volume of the Philological Society, Oxford, 1957, 1-31), Start Page 168, Quote Page 179, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana. (Verified with scans)