Excerpted from Umberto Eco, From the Tree to the Labyrinth: Historical Studies on the Sign and Interpretation.
The term “semantics” has a number of different meanings, several of which seem to be completely at odds with one another. This state of affairs is often a source of considerable embarrassment in dealing with our students, to whom we find ourselves having to explain that our discipline is a bit like the country where some people call “red” what others call “white” and vice versa. With the result that, every time we use the word “red,” we would have to assign it a superscript or subscript number, specifying that we mean “red1, in such and such a sense.”
In 1883 Michel Bréal (Les lois intellectuelles du langage: Fragment de sémantique) defined semantics as the science of meaning, but when he came to publish his Essai de sémantique in 1897 he gave it the more general subtitle Science des significations, and only in chapter IX, in which he proposed to examine “by what causes words, once created and endowed with a certain meaning, are induced to restrict, to extend, to transfer this meaning from one order of ideas to another, to raise or to lower its dignity, in short to change it,” does he say “it is this second part which, properly speaking constitutes Semantics or the Science of Significations.”
Semantics, then, is the science of meanings, but, for Bréal, only insofar as they are subject to historical development. And this is not all. Each time Bréal has to deal with the meaning of a word he proves incapable of isolating it from the set of enunciates, or more extensive fragments of text, in which the word appears. To give but a single example, in the chapter on the laws of specialization, Bréal is less interested in defining the meaning of the French word plus than in the fact that it takes on different meanings in different expressions.
The notion of semantics, then, is born, historically speaking, in reference to that imponderable entity we label meaning, but only to a lesser extent is it concerned with the meaning of words, or, to put it differently, of terms in isolation. For this, what was needed was not a science but an empirical praxis, lexicography in its most hands-on sense, that is, the actual compilation of dictionaries. Still, we must not forget that the whole of lexicography is simply the description of a langue, and therefore of an abstract entity, and not of the practical use of parole by means of which the speaker “means” something.