Mum's the Word

While listening to a webcast of an Alan Watts lecture called The World as Self, I took down the following quotation attributed to Alfred Korzybski, the semantics genius: "The real world is taboo." Now what could this possibly mean? I wondered.

So I wrote an e-mail to an expert on the great Korzybski (famous for having said, "The map is not the territory, the menu is not the meal"), and I asked him what the linguist meant when he said that the real world is taboo, a funny thing for a word-man to say.

Alan Watts once said that the truth is hidden from us by the veil of Maya but may be revealed when, for instance, an ordinary strip of paper, twisted back on itself, becomes a one-sided Mobius loop, defying, mystifying, logic, so that no matter how we turn the paper looking for the front we will always find the back on the same side because the sides are inseparable, proving without words that in a secret conspiracy, the opposites are inextricably bound together just as the world and the self are one.

But I digress.

The scholar wrote back to inform me, somewhat indignantly since his man had been misquoted, that Korzybski never said anything (funny or otherwise) about the real being unspeakable. What old Alfred actually said (and I paraphrase) was that, on the contrary, silly men will persist in the habit of naming things, but that words have no intrinsic meaning and may be misconstrued, so that when we say, "Deaf Man Given Hearing in Court," or "Piano for Sale by Girl with Mahogany Legs," we have to suffer the consequences.

So what have I learned - only this: if the world and the self are one, and if we (the world and the self) are unspeakable, then I'd better keep it to myself.

About the author:

Ginny Wray has appeared previously on Eyeshot,,, and has work forthcoming at Creativenonfiction/Brevity, and She works as an English editor and is on the editorial board at