Words and Meanings

Here is a good thought for the day about words and their meanings from Edward W. H. Vick’s book Eschatology: A Participatory Study Guide:

One of the continual problems of communication and one which gives rise to much misunderstanding and sometimes even hostility, is that identical language can have very different meanings.  I use a word as I understand it.  You take the word I am using as you understand it and we go on talking until we discover that the same terminology has quite different senses for you than it has for me. Now you may not want to allow that my meaning is the right one.  But if you are going to understand me, you may have to bracket your understanding and put your mind into my frame of reference.  Or you can simply assert your meaning and reject mine.  If you are enthusiastic and your conviction is unshakable you may even become hostile.  But without a mutual consideration the result is almost inevitably misunderstanding.

If I mean one thing by a term and you mean another, we shall have to see that difference and then we can either allow that both meaning are proper and recognize both usages.  Or, if I use the term ‘end’ in one sense and you use it in another, it may be that neither of us will allow the propriety of the use the other is making.  So there will be conflict, or without further consideration, rejection and possibly hostility.  On the other hand you may see that one use of ‘end’ is different from the other and then understand why the term is used in that way.  Then there can be mutual consideration and understanding.  (Eschatology, pg 77)

This is very good!  I think this could be a classic case of the line from the Princess Bride where Inigo Montoya says to Vizzini regarding his overuse of the word “inconceivable,”

“You keep using that word.  I do not think it means what you think it means.”


One thing this scene does is highlight the fact that sometimes and not infrequently – overuse of words can tend to flatten their meaning so that then they become meaningless- which is what I think could be happening with overuse or inappropriate use of words such as liberal or conservative, etc.  Context is always important, as when we remove the context or overlook it, then words start to lose their meanings and impact.

We tend to do this alot, I think, with biblical words and words used in Christian-speak.  We either fail to understand the range of meanings and show respect to various usages, or we just throw caution to the wind and use them however we want to use them.  For obvious reasons, this is not good.

The meanings of words often depend on how they are being used.  I understand it probably better to speak of the fact that meanings of words have semantic range, but in this case Vick is touching on the fact that for mutual understanding to occur (even if there is disagreement) a particular meaning of a word needs to be agreed upon, depending on the how it is being used – as in his example of “end’.

So the thought for the day is that we need to show respect to words and their various meanings and be sure that we always seek mutual understanding when conversing with others in regards to the Bible and how we talk as Christians.



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