Différance: A term coined by the Algerian-born French theorist of deconstruction Jacques Derrida to show that words are only the deferred presences of the things they “mean”; that every meaning invokes others in a never-ending string of connotations; and that the meaning of words is grounded in both their difference from and relationship to other words. Différance is a neologism that puns on the French verb différer, which can mean either “to differ” or “to defer,” a double meaning Derrida used to demonstrate the impossibility of arriving at a determinate — that is, single and definitive — interpretation of language, particularly literary language. Derrida first introduced the term in his book La voix et le phénomène (Speech and Phenomena) (1967) and subsequently elaborated on it in a lecture and essay titled “Différance” (1968).
Drawing on the theories of Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, Derrida argued that the quest for meaning — an effort we undertake whenever we read or listen to something — is endless. As Saussure pointed out, the relationship between a word (the signifier) and what it signifies (the signified) is always arbitrary, and a single word, or signifier, can connote any number of different signifieds. Moreover, each signifier has connotations that themselves have connotations, making every signified another signifier. As a result, according to Derrida, meaning is continually deferred as we seek to differentiate among an array of interpretive choices and to negotiate the gap between an ever increasing number of signifiers and signifieds.
The term différance also suggests the French noun différence, meaning “difference.” The distinction between the homonyms différance and différence is one that can be seen in written French but not heard in the spoken language, a point that Derrida used to subvert, or “deconstruct,” the privileging of speech and presence over writing and absence in logocentric Western metaphysics, which understands Creation to have taken place when a present God spoke the words “Let there be light.”