Monday, March 7, 2016

A Family Name

The other day I was reading Seth Godin—well, because, Seth Godin—and I ran across a word I couldn't set aside. It was one of those words you just wouldn't use every day, but it had the aura of a tool that might become useful.

I don't know about you, but I look at words like I would tools. You want to make your tools work hard for you, but you also want to use the right tool for the right job. No sense sweating over a task with the wrong tool, when the right tool would make the job a breeze.

It was just over a week ago when Seth was blogging about trust. Of course, the whole post is worthy of consideration, but there was one passage that caught my eye:
In most commercial and organizational engagements, trust is something we want and something we seek out, but we use the most basic semiotics and personal interactions to choose where to place our trust. And once the trust is broken, there's almost no amount of transparency that will help us change our mind.

There it was, right in the middle of that statement: the word that caught my eye. Semiotics. I had to look that one up. It might turn out to be handy.

And it did. Not in the straightforward, line-upon-line, knowledge-added way you might have assumed. You know me: rabbit trails all the way.

While the description of semiotics may be the kind of material that induces the eyes-glazed-over response—if you doubt my word, take a look for yourself—but in a strange way, I found it fascinating. Why? Because it included a rabbit-trail-trigger that launched me back into my own family history.

Right in the Wikipedia explanation defining semiotics as the study of meaning-making, the article was careful to warn, "not to be confused with the Saussurean tradition called semiology."

Wait! Saussurean? I've seen a name like that before. Which Saussure would be the one inspiring a "tradition" like that?

As it turned out, the real Saussure was Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss linguist who died in 1913. While that makes for interesting reading (at least to those interested in pursuing semiotics), it also reminded me that I have some de Saussures in my family tree. In fact, that same name cropped up as a middle name for several people related to my maternal line. The regular repetition of that name through the generations almost seemed to shout the importance attached to someone with that name.

Since the link to my tree came in with the marriage of Daniel de Saussure Bacot to Rosa Taylor from the Taliaferro branch of my maternal line, I didn't know much about this in-law to that Taylor line. All I knew is that from this wedding was generated a couple more generations carrying this de Saussure as a middle name. It took some hunting to determine that the source of that name, at least in my extended tree, was thanks to Daniel's paternal grandmother, carrier of that de Saussure as a maiden name. Undoubtedly, the name was replicated in other branches of that tree as much as (or perhaps even more than) it had been in my family tree.

Often, when an unusual given name is mentioned in a group setting, someone will invariably bring up the question, "Is that a family name?" The methodical re-iteration of a family name throughout the generations is a sure signal that someone thought that original name to be of importance.

Now, whenever anyone delves into the intricate study of semiotics and brings up Ferdinand de Saussure, though his lifespan post-dates my family line, I won't be able to consider it without remembering those ancestors and thinking, "I wonder if we're related?" 


  1. Whenever I pass along this kind of information, I end with "in case you are ever on Jeopardy."

    1. Laffs. Yes I can just hear Alex Trebex saying the name very carefully.

    2. P.s., I read the link on semiotics and I'm still nearly clueless as to what the word means!

    3. Too funny, Wendy! It does seem like Trivial Pursuit to find these tidbits. Now, the main thing is to actually remember these details!

    4. Iggy, the text does tend to lose me, too, but the general sense of being an art of developing meaning is the main message I get. That, in itself, seems fascinating. If I delved into it much more than that, though, I'm sure the text would lose me for sure!


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