Words Are A Funny Thing

I saw someone write, "Words all have the same meaning. They are universal. They do not mean different things to different people, IF YOU KNOW THE TRUE MEANING."

Hmmm. Certainly when I write something I intend a certain meaning. You could call that the "true meaning" I suppose. But, what do I mean by the word: post?

Ahhh... There's the rub, as we say. The dictionary lists 25 (or more) definitions for post. You can't know what I mean unless you have a context. So, it's not a question of a word having different meanings to different people. Rather, it's a question of which meaning the person intended in a specific context. That's not so simple.

This ambiguity of meaning can be used for humor. Puns, for example, depend on it. It may also be an ambiguity due to the words sounding the same. "Wood, like a door" and "Would like a door" are clearly distinct when written out, but it's difficult to tell the difference when spoken out loud.

Q: Pete and Re-pete are sitting in a boat. Pete falls out, who is left?
A: Re-pete.
Q: Pete and Re-pete are sitting in a boat...

Words are a funny thing.

Now, do I mean that words are humorous or do I mean that words can be understood differently in a variety of context?

There was a question of whether or not reincarnation is a Christian idea. Well, it depends on what you mean by reincarnation. Ahh, you say, reincarnation means what reincarnation means, so don't try to get all clever on me! Except, reincarnation just means that something is incarnate (made physical) more than once. To say it means that a person returns to a body multiple times for the purpose of working off karma is to extend the meaning by placing it into an assumed philosophical context. Well, I say, always check your assumptions, because reincarnation can also be used to express the idea that a soul returns to physical form to work the will of God. It's the same literal word used in two different philosophical contexts. If the context is not clear, then the best thing to do is ask for clarification rather than just assuming the context. That tends to avoid unnecessary confusion and argument.

Words are a funny thing.

Do I mean words are ambiguous when I say they are funny things? Ambiguity of words is also used for purposes of metaphor. The teachings of Jesus are filled with this type of ambiguity, and He even said it was done on purpose so that the wicked would not understand.

"Beware the leaven of the Pharisees," Jesus said. The disciples start mumbling something about where they should buy bread to avoid getting the bread made by Pharisees. Dolts! Jesus has to explain that He is speaking metaphorically and that "leaven" is symbolic in this context. It doesn't refer to the yeast that makes bread rise; it's the false doctrine of the Pharisees. Ahhhh. So now we know exactly what He meant? Maybe notů

Some people will say this means any error at all corrupts the whole. Sometimes. But, if you have a writing with one-hundred statements of fact in it, one false statement doesn't mean you have to throw the whole thing out. Just discard that one false statement is all. But, if you have a writing that is a series of propositions in logic, one false premise causes the remaining conclusions to be false. One little bit of leaven (false premise) then leavens the whole lump (set of conclusions drawn from the premise).

Linguists say that a word has both a synchronic meaning and a diachronic meaning. Synchronic meaning is the meaning at the current point in time. Diachronic meaning is the change of meaning over time, i.e. etymology. If you want to know what a person means by a word, you also have to know when the writing was made. It always confused me when I read in the U. S. Constitution, "To form a more perfect union" until I found out that the word "perfect" used to have the meaning of "complete". Now it makes sense. So, when Paul says in Ephesians 4 that the purpose of ministers is the "perfecting" of the saints, that doesn't mean the minister will remove all the saints' flaws.

When dealing with words it's best to remember that there can be sarcasm, humor, various meanings, use of symbolic language, and changes in meaning over time. So, words are a funny thing.

Well, this type of thing bothers some people. They don't like ambiguity since it gives the impression that there maybe is no right vs. wrong or truth vs. lie. And so, they are adamant that the Bible be the "inerrant" word of God, and only ONE version can ever be correct. But there shouldn't be any need to worry. We deal with the ambiguity of words on a daily basis. With a little care, a little effort, some study and critical thinking, the true intended meaning can be discovered. One thing that helps is to talk things out with other people. Others may understand a different context and can expand the understanding we have.


Bookmark and Share