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Framing language, changing meaning

By Chris James - posted Wednesday, 24 December 2008

In The Age “Good Weekend” supplement (November 15) just inside the cover there was a two-page colour advertisement with a picture of a beautifully carved wooden bowl and a caption that stated:

“It’s not just A BOWL. It’s a helping hand in CLIMATE CHANGE”.

The advertisement in “Good Weekend” is a promotion for the logging industry and was the brainchild of a front organisation calling themselves “Wood: Naturally Better”. The advertising promotion alludes to the notion that logging the state forests is environmentally friendly because trees contain valuable carbon that offsets damaging human activities. The promotion reads as follows:


Using wood is naturally better for our environment because it helps with climate change in two very important ways. First, growing trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store carbon so efficiently that about half the dry weight of a tree is carbon … Second, forestry is one of the most greenhouse-friendly sectors of the Australian economy … What’s more wood is a truly renewable resource because millions of new trees are planted each year and Australia has a well-established framework to support the conservation and sustainable management of our forests.

It sounds very impressive but in reality 80 per cent of the timber cut from state forests goes to woodchip and pulp. The perception that the logging industry is clean and green and offsets climate change is very misleading but it goes unchallenged because of the way the information is framed. Added to the narrative in this advertisement is an aesthetically pleasing illustration (a wooden bowl) that works to delight our senses: the advertisement works to achieve its aims because we revel in its possibilities and/or assumptions not its realities.

Language and change

The way we use language is always changing. What is unique about the current changes in language is that these changes do not flow naturally from social and cultural shifts as one might expect. Rather, they are influenced by the cognitive sciences and a system of econometrics that serves the interests of market forces.

All language has its own economy, which means it is spread across social space to increase its momentum. Here, it will take on speculative meaning and attach a lot of other options to its legitimacy. We do not simply use language to express ourselves, language is a social device that structures our thinking and programs our lives and opinions.

Words have a semantic network that allows language to be framed in ways that serve to invoke key meanings and predictable outcomes.

A barrister uses language to win a case in the Law Courts. A police officer uses language to extract a confession. A builder uses language to explain his building task.


The timber industry carefully selects its language, re-framing the term “sustainability”, to sell products from a non-sustainable industry.

The way we “frame” language can significantly change its meaning. There are no absolute truths in this re-framing regime and this makes language a useful tool of persuasion especially when you remove the detail and replace it with a conceptual view (or language frames). To this end, language can be a countervailing mechanism that often hides more than it reveals.

These mechanisms are so discursive they frequently fail to come under any serious public scrutiny even though there are some obvious examples in daily life: in advertising, the media, political rhetoric and corporate hype. In this formula there are technically no truths and no lies because everything in the mental processes is subject to the creation of a perception, an ongoing fantasy - an experiment or idea - an entrepreneurial dream.

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About the Author

Dr Chris James is an artist, writer, researcher and psychotherapist. She lives on a property in regional Victoria and lectures on psychotherapeutic communities and eco-development. Her web site is

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