Philosophers are caught in an intellectual debate over the “true” meaning of this anti-Trump sign

What does it say?
What does it say?
Image: Getty Images/ Leon Neal
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Depending on your political leanings, you may be delighted or offended by the photos below:

In the first image, a woman holds a sign that appears to say “Trump is a cunt,” but a second photo reveals that the key word is, in fact, “runt.” To most people, it’s no more than a curiosity. But to philosophers of language, this is a prime illustration of an intellectually knotty feature of language.

The sign is an example of conversational implicature, a philosophical notion first put forward by 20th century philosopher of language, Paul Grice. Essentially, Grice showed that conversation is very rarely literal; instead, people infer meaning according to context.

“Imagine that you ask me, ‘Would you like to go for a drink after work?’, and I reply, ‘Sorry, I have a deadline’,” says Rebecca Roache, philosophy lecturer at Royal Holloway University of London. “If we consider solely what is uttered here, what I have said looks completely irrelevant to the question you’ve asked me.”

Thanks to context, we would infer that Roache can’t go to the pub because of her deadline. This inference is based on the assumption that both speaker and listener are advancing a particular conversation, rather that making random statements. “Rather than conclude that I have not answered your question and have instead given you a completely irrelevant piece of information, you naturally assume that I am cooperating with you in communicating, and that therefore I intend you to take what I’ve said as an answer to your question,” adds Roache.

In the first photo, the sign about Trump is partly obscured by the woman holding it, so we have to infer meaning from the context. “I think that, based on the rest of the font, it’s natural to interpret that obscured letter as a ‘C’, which would also fit with the context (i.e. Trump protesters holding often very sweary signs),” writes Roache. “I also think that she intends us to read it that way: she has, after all, written that letter so that the part of it that we can see looks much more like a c than an r.”

But Roache has been debating the case with Jennifer Saul, a philosophy of language professor at University of Sheffield. Saul believes the sign doesn’t implicate “Trump is a cunt,” but instead misleads the audience to arrive at the wrong semantic content. In other words, the true meaning of the sign is what’s written on it, rather than what’s typically perceived. “That, I think, depends on what you think the ‘wrong semantic content’ is!,” writes Roache.

To those outside of philosophy, the two interpretations might seem like a small difference. But it’s a difference worthy of debate among philosophers.  As Saul notes, the sign creator is intentionally playing with the two plausible “right” meanings of the sign. “If anyone accused the creator of swearing, she would be able to move her arm and insist it was an accident. Her goal is to be able to say that what happened is akin to a typographical error which led to her non-sweary message being misread as sweary,” Saul writes.

There are often various ways to interpret a particular statement, and the woman in the picture is hardly the first person to use the nebulousness of language to their advantage. For example, when former US president Bill Clinton was questioned about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, he responded, “There is no sexual relationship.” In this sentence, Clinton’s use of the present tense is all too deliberate.

“Because people usually answer the question that they are asked, and audiences will assume that they are doing so, Clinton managed to convey that there never had been a sexual relationship with Lewinsky,” writes Saul. “Of course, soon people noticed that he had carefully not said that—which allowed him to controversially (but truly, I think) to say that he had not lied.” Similarly, the woman’s sign lets her evoke a taboo word while maintaining plausible deniability. For those immersed in questions of how we convey meaning, the sign is a reminder of the slippery nature of language.