There is a essential link between the shared life of a society and the lexicon of the language spoken by it. Language is frequently understood by researchers in strings of utterances rather than individual lexical components. There is, of course, nothing wrong with that, but it does limit how we analyze and interpret what people tell us. Examining the cultural context and deeper meanings of key words used by a people can shed light on how they navigate the world, including how they think about products and brands. For example, while English has a special word for orange jam (marmalade), German does not. Similarly, while “cola” describes a specific drink, “coke” has become a universal word for cola around the globe and a reference to all soft drinks in parts of the South. Obviously, these examples tell us something about the eating and drinking habits of the people in question. If we take the time to tease out what these individual words mean, we can craft language and messaging that is more relevant and leads to more sales.
So when we talk about “key words” what do we mean? Simply key words are those which are particularly revealing in a given culture. They are words people can expound upon, will debate the meaning, will weave into stories and involve passionate discourse. In other words, they are the words go beyond the mundane and codify our understanding of the world. There is no finite set of key words in a language and there is no “objective discovery procedure” for identifying them, which of course sends people obsessed with numbers into a tailspin. But lacking a discovery procedure does not mean that identification lacks evidence. To show a word had some special importance to a culture means making a case for it. So how do we make a claim for particular words?
First, it makes sense to establish that a words is a common word not a marginal one. These need not be related to frequency in daily use, but may be specific to a semantic domain. Second, it often makes sense to explore whether or not a word is at the center of a phraseological cluster. Finally, it makes sense to explore and identify if a word occurs frequently in pop culture, songs, proverbs, book titles, etc. The point is to look not only for frequency, but how the word is used in relation to specific concepts, including brands. The intent is not, or shouldn’t be, to “prove” whether or not a word is one of a culture’s key words, but rather to be able to say something significant about a culture by undertaking an in-depth study of some of them. It is less about the less for numbers and statistical validation and more about insight and the search for meaning.
Understandably, the search for key words and their associated meanings within a cultural context can be criticized as an atomistic pursuit that lacks the breadth of a holistic approach and there is some truth to that. And the objection would be valid if the research revolved around a random selection of words viewed in isolation. But that is not what I’m suggesting. The point is to use key words as focal points around which we can show general organizing and symbolic principles. In turn, those modes of organization can be used to develop structures and identify coherence of meaning to a cultural domain and the connections across domains.
A key word such as “old” in American English is like the loose end of a ball of tangled values, assumptions, expectations and attitudes about aging. Like the use of metaphor as a tool for uncovering the meanings behind utterances, isolation of a key word allows the researcher to explore the meaning of a concept from the choice of associated words to the syntax around them. Seemingly abstract stuff, yes, but there is a practical side to it. If you can understand the complexities around a key word, you can build messaging that reflects proper meaning, grammatical structure and associated imagery in UI structure, design and advertising. In other words, it allows you to create a holistic solution to a problem.