The Invention of the American Dream

Here’s a fun fact: did you know the American Dream didn’t exist until the late 1920s? No, really, the American Dream didn’t come into being until round about 1928 or so.

Now, it should be noted that I’m talking about the phrase “American Dream,” as opposed to the idea of the whole rags-to-riches story that we all know and love. Signifier Signified carSee, in semiotics (the study of meaning-making) there are two hugely important concepts associated with pretty much every word ever spoken. The first is called the signifier; that’s the letters and words that make up the phrase American Dream. The other side of that, the whole story of picking yourself up by your boot straps and making something of yourself that goes along with that phrase is called the signified.

So the letters that make up the word car in the illustration are simply that, letters making up a word. The picture that our mind produces when we read the word is the signified image of a car.

Back to our dream (which may or may not include a car). Thanks to the Google Books Ngram Viewer, it’s possible to see a chart marking the rise and fall of a word or phrase since the 1800s. Briefly, an Ngram is  any portion of a word (letter, phoneme, etc) from the smallest unigram to much larger units. Google Ngram, searches its some 4 million scanned books for a any number of words and phrases. Below is the chart for our phrase in question, American Dream.

American Dream nGram Graph

I find it interesting that just as the United States was beginning the descent into what would become the Great Depression, the term American Dream began rising in popularity. It makes sense, though, that at the point when things seemed to be bleak (and turning bleaker) our collective minds would turn to the hope of an eventual renewal.

It seems that words have to be more than just signifiers for us humans. They have to be more than just a collection of letters that make a particular sound when read aloud; they have to be all those concepts as well. It’s within the signified that we find purpose and that we define the world around us. It’s funny that, for the most part, we pay so little attention to the words we use in everyday conversation despite the fact that they literally help us define the world around us.

Try this little experiment: the next time you’re in a conversation, attempt to be as mindful as possible of the words you’re using. That’s not to say that you have to pick and choose the perfect word, just that you’re actively considering the words you’re using. I imagine you might find yourself speaking a big slower for one thing. I also imagine you’ll being to see the words for what they are: the hopes, fears, and desires and all that make us human manifest in the simple letters and words and phrases.

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