Chase the Ace

by Joe Sinclair[1]

"For those who believe, no proof is necessary. For those who don't believe, no proof is possible" - Stuart Chase


The tribute I paid to Alfred Korzybski in the previous issue of Nurturing Potential made reference to Stuart Chase.  Indeed his name, and referrals to his written works, have appeared fairly consistently in the articles published in Nurturing Potential's language section.   I felt it was time he was given an airing in his own behalf.


Hardly anyone - at least amongst my acquaintances - seems to have heard of Stuart Chase.

Yet, during his lifetime, and particularly in the years prior to World War II,  Stuart Chase was a widely read and highly respected figure in several fields, notably that of communication.  He has been described as "the first writer to reduce to the language of the layman the interesting science of clarifying the meaning of words", i.e. semantics.

Fittingly, having determined to pay this tribute to Chase, I discovered that a similar project had been completed by writers William Alan Hodson and John Carfora in the September-October 2004 issue of the Harvard Magazine.  I have drawn some material from their article (but have acknowledged their contribution wherever I have done so).[2]  

Stuart Chase was born in New Hampshire, USA, in 1888 and educated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, studying economics, banking and accounting with classmates such as T.S. Eliot and Walter Lippmann, and finding himself challenged by new developments in many different areas of human activity: sociological, political, economic and educational.

On the eve of his 23rd birthday, he wrote: "So many are the roads and lanes and byways that branch from this open portal. I look back and see the straight, calm thoroughfare that has led me here. I look forward and stand dazed and blinded before the myriad ways that lead to ultimate darkness or light. Now I must choose my own path... from among the many and follow it in all faith and trust until experience bids me seek another. The world always turns aside to let one pass who knows where they are going."

Hodson and Carfora write that his "life and work won him international acclaim as a critic of unprincipled corporate practices, an innovator in consumer protection, a promoter of altruistic economic policies, an advocate for adult learning and mass public education, and an activist for responsive government and ecological stewardship. He advised presidents and interpreted contemporary issues for ordinary men and women in 35 books and hundreds of pamphlets and articles, seeking to help people improve their lives."


His early working career, after graduating cum laude from Harvard, was in his father's accounting firm from which, after a few years, he transferred to that of corporate accounting, becoming determined to reveal and eradicate the several irregularities he discovered.  His pressure on Congress following his report on the meat-packing industry resulted in his being fired from his position with the Federal Trade Commission.  But he would never allow his high standards to lapse.

His activities brought him to the attention of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, then (in 1931) Governor of New York.  Shortly afterwards, Chase published a book A New Deal which became the focus of Roosevelt's economic policy after assuming the Presidency.  Subsequently, in February 1937, when President Roosevelt, in order to ensure the satisfactory implementation of his New Deal, endeavoured to introduce laws designed to streamline social legislation through the courts, and was being hamstrung by the establishment, Chase wrote a letter to the New York Times.[3]    The newspaper refused to publish it.  Nevertheless, Roosevelt eventually had his way.  As one observer put it: "What the President is proposing is to dynamite the reactionary judges into retirement".[4]

According to Hodson and Carfora, "in 1937, the president told Chase's father that his son was "teaching the American people more about economics than all the others combined." Others concurred: in 1942 a magazine writer noted, "[H]e perhaps more than any other one person has made economics interesting and understandable to everyday people like you and me."

This was Chase's great strength: the ability to put concepts and ideas into language that was comprehensible and accessible to "everyday people like you and me".  

A final extract from Hodson and Carfora: "A steadfast believer in adult education and lifelong learning, which he considered essential for participatory democracy, Chase was a noteworthy defender of the common citizen's aptitude for understanding vital civic questions. Across seven decades and 49 states, he mesmerized lecture audiences with disarmingly simple and inspiring insights into the social issues that were his passion."

But this is intended as an article in the Language section of Nurturing Potential, so let us turn our attention to Chase's contribution in this area, with merely a passing reference to certain similarities with a more recent linguistics expert, who also publishes regular writings in the areas of political and economic comment: Noam Chomsky.

Unlike Noam Chomsky, however,  you will not find Stuart Chase's name in the index or in the bibliography section of major works on semantics.  Noam Chomsky is an innovator and an academic; Stuart Chase was a populariser and publicist.  Noam Chomsky will undoubtedly leave a great mark on the field of semantics and exert a considerable influence on fellow acadamics.   Stuart Chase certainly exerted a greater influence on a far greater number of "common" citizens in  his own lifetime.  One is tempted to paraphrase Chase's own words: "The Lord prefers common looking people. That is why he made so many of them", into "I prefer addressing common people; there are so many more of them."


Stuart Chase produced two major works on the meaning and use of words, and there was an 16 year gap between them.  In 1938 his The Tyranny of Words achieved such popularity as to achieve best-seller status.  It ran to several editions and has never been out of print.  In 1955 he published his Power of WordsTyranny was inspired by Korzybski's Science and Sanity, reinforced by the writings of Lancelot Hogben, C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards.  Where these books would never have been read by the "general public", Chase made their content immediately accessible to the "man-in-the-street".[5]  

Here are some extracts from the opening chapter of The Tyranny of Words:

I have written several books and many articles, but only lately have I begun to inquire into the nature of the tools I use . . . Language, whether English, French, or Chinese, is taken for granted; a basic datum.  Writers search their memories for a better word to use in a given context but are no more in the habit of questioning language than of questioning the weather . . . We assume that we know exactly what we mean, and that readers who do not understand us should polish their wits.

Years ago I read a little book by Allen Upward called The New Word.  It was an attempt to get at the meaning of 'idealism' as used in the terms of the Nobel Prize . . . [He asked] a number of his friends to give their personal interpretation of the term . . . [and] . . . received the following replies:

fanatical            poetical                altruistic            what cannot be proved

intangible         not practical         sentimental      opposite of materialism  

exact                 true                                                 something to do with imaginative powers

This gave me pause.  I thought I knew what 'idealism' meant right enough and had used it many times with confidence.  Obviously, in the light of Upward's study, what I meant was rarely if ever communicated to the hearer. . . 

Another matter which distressed me was that I found it almost impossible to read philosophy.  The great words went round and round in my head until I became dizzy.  Sometimes they made pleasant music, but I could rarely effect passage between them and the real world of experience.  William James I could usually translate, but the great classics had almost literally no meaning to me - 'absolute', 'oversoul', 'the universal', 'the nominal', 'the eternal'.  . .  The harder I wrestled, the more the solemn procession of verbal ghosts circled through my brain, mocking my ignorance. . . 

Was there a way to make language a better vehicle for communicating ideas?  I read Freud, Trotter, Le Bon, MacDougall, Watson, who gave me some light on motives but little on language . . . 

The first pioneer to help me was Count Alfred Korzybski, a Polish mathematician now living in the United States.  He had written a book published in 1933 called Science and Sanity . . . [which] . . . was harder reading than all the philosophers combined, but it connected with my world of experience . . . 

I went on to The Meaning of Meaning by C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards . . . These three investigators - Korzybski, Ogden, and Richards - agree broadly on the two besetting sins of language.  One is identification of words with things.  The other is misuse of abstract words. 'This is a dog'.  Is it?  The thing that is called 'dog' is a nonverbal object.  It can be observed by the senses, it can be described, and then, for convenience, the label 'dog' can be attached to it - or the label 'hund' or 'chien' or 'perro'.  But the label is not the animal. . . 

Ogden and Richards contribute a technical term, the 'referent', by which they mean the object or situation in the real world to which the word or label refers . . .  the goal of semantics might be stated as 'Find the referent'.  When people can agree on the things to which their words refer, minds meet.  The communication line is cleared.

Labels as names for things may be roughly divided into three classes on an ascending scale: 

1.  Labels for common objects such as 'dog', 'chair', 'pencil'.  Here difficulty is at a minimum.

2.  Labels for clusters or collections of things, such as 'mankind', 'consumer's goods', 'Germany', 'the white race', 'the courts'.  These are abstractions of a higher order, and confusion in their use is widespread.  There is no entity 'white race' in the world outside our heads, but only some millions of individuals with skins of an obvious or dubious whiteness.

3.  Labels for essences or qualities, such as 'the sublime', 'freedom', 'individualism', 'truth'.  For such terms there are no discoverable referents in the outside world . . .  This zone is the especial domain of philosophy, politics, and economics. 

And here I will cease my quotations from The Tyranny of Words.  I have covered a mere four pages of the first chapter of Chase's book and, while tempted to continue, I'm likely to get so carried away by the magic of his text that I would not know when or where to stop.  The book is still in print and can be obtained through Amazon or via your favoured book source.  I urge you to get a copy and treat yourself to a fantastic read.

I recently came across the following on a website:

About 50 or so years ago I read a book by Stuart Chase, "The Tyranny of Words." It had a profound impact on my thinking. Not that I totally understood everything in the book, but I did understand the essence of what he wrote.  I thought I had lost the book. However [my wife]  found it for me the other day.
I am re-reading it again. His ideas are much clearer to me now. I believe it is one of the most important books ever written for the layman about "semantics." Originally published in 1938, it is available at Amazon for $7.95. If you are a thinking person, you must read the book.

And here is a quote from a review of the book found on the Amazon website:

The book is dated but fascinating. It introduces the notion that much of what we argue about is really not an argument about facts but one about definitions. It is fascinating also to note the players in the 1930s and to see what their predictions became. A wonderful introduction to semantics with the caution that if you let an enemy select the terms of the argument, he has already won it.


Chase's later book, Power of Words (1955) is more difficult to find.  It didn't carry the same "punch" as Tyranny, but has a lot of "meat" and amusing and valuable commentary on many aspects of language and communication.  Written in collaboration with his wife Marian Tyler Chase, Power includes chapters on Linguistics, Super-linguistics, The Language of Science, Eminent Semanticists, Korzybski's Contribution; and then comes a section on Applications - the semantic basis of language in economics, international affairs, oratory, medicine, the media and education.  It also has a chapter devoted to Gobbledygook that was sufficiently amusing for me to organise a special article on the subject from Sep Meyer.


Attitude is your acceptance of the natural laws, or your rejection of the natural laws.

Sanely applied advertising could remake the world.

The very first law in advertising is to avoid the concrete promise and cultivate the delightfully vague.

Traditional nationalism cannot survive the fissioning of the atom. One world or none.

Democracy, as has been said of Christianity, has never really been tried.

References and Biodata:

[1] Joe Sinclair is a writer, editor, publisher, and non-executive director of a shipping line - amongst other activities - one of which is the publishing of Nurturing Potential. His personal website will be found at

[2] Their complete article will be found at

[3]  February 15, 1937.

[4]  Article in The Nation, February 13, 1937. .

[5]  He would no doubt have taken exception to "general public" and "man-in-the-street" and denounced both terms as abstractions.