A symbol is a concrete (that is, knowable by perception or imagination) emblem, mark, or sign that points beyond itself to a reality (a belief or an idea), the meaning (the definition and description) of which it (the symbol) communicates to the perceiver of the symbol. For a symbol to be a symbol that definition and description must be communally-transmitted and understood.(1)
Words are symbols; pointing beyond themselves to realities (concepts, ideas) that, when employed (said or written), conjure up in the minds of the listeners or the readers those realities (concepts, ideas).
Though manifold are the ways we humans can communicate with one another (e.g., our facial expressions), we, wedded to words, inevitably must use them.
On the Benefit and Risk of Words
We humans, when using words, encounter, inexorably and in equal measure, benefit and risk.
The benefit is in the constant work of broadening one’s vocabulary. As my sainted grandmother Audia Mae Hoard Roberts instilled in me, the more words one knows (and how to use them), one’s capacity to communicate can be more nuanced and precise; thus, closer to the truth of one’s understanding and meaning.
The risk is in the assumption that any two or more people, when using the same words, understand and mean to communicate precisely the same concepts and ideas. That, I believe (as each of us, no matter how similar in worldview or how long-and-well-known, is wholly individual), is an inherent impossibility.
Therefore, cleaving to another of my grandmother’s lessons, there alway is the necessity for us, when communicating with one another, to define our terms. To wit: “When I use this word in this instance, I mean this.” Yes, this may (doubtless, will) make our efforts to communicate tedious, but our tedium, I think, is better than having our intent misunderstood and our meaning misconstrued.
(1) I can conceive of an insignia devised by an individual, the meaning of which is known only to that person. However, that, I think, lacking some universal or communally-shared recognition, is less a symbol and more a personal sign.