Wednesday, October 16, 2013

What Are Words?

Today I've had two discussions about semantics.

One was a discussion of the term "anarchist" by an anarchist friend of mine who complains that the term is used "wrongly" by those who use it as a popular term for those opposing any government.  Of course, that is one meaning of the word, and a more common one than his preferred use of the word "anarchist", which is a political theory where a government does not use force, but is instead replaced by a voluntary cooperative society.  

In a forum about theology, I had a discussion about the word "Christian" and if it means a "real" disciple of Jesus or just someone who goes to church.  Some claimed that since the Bible three times uses the word "Christian" for disciple, that they mean the same thing.

I think that both of these folks are supporting a fallacy about words: that they are static, have one primary meaning and that primary meaning is the "real" meaning and other uses of the word are "wrong."  What we need to recognize that besides homophones, words generally do not have a single, concrete meaning, but a range of meanings, which linguists call "semantic categories."  A word is not a sign, which will remain in one place, never changing, but rather a pool ball, bouncing around within a limited context.  The meaning in any sentence depends on the other pool balls, and we need to see where it lands.

This is the problem of having a certain set of words which are "bad".  No word is "bad" in and of itself, but it is a context it is used in which it is "bad" or inappropriate.  "Shit" isn't a bad word when you're talking about stuff in a toilet.  "Fuck" isn't bad when speaking of a sexual act privately, or when feeling aghast at a situation when speaking to certain people.  But if I'm in church or on television, I just shouldn't use those words, because the context is inappropriate.  Some would say that these words shouldn't make an appearance on a blog by a pastor.  Interesting thought...

Even so, to speak of "anarchists" negatively isn't wrong, it is just using the word in one of the appropriate meanings.  Those who classify themselves as "anarchists" politically might want to think about using a new term unless they want someone to assume something different than they intend.

In this way, I do not use the word "Christian" as if that is what saves someone.  No matter how it is used in the Bible, "Christian" is more commonly known as someone who associates oneself to the social world of Christianity, not necessarily a committed, faithful disciple.  So I'd rather use the term Christian for how it is meant in the majority of the world-- a social label.  And for those who recognize that Jesus is Lord, I'd rather say "follower of Christ."  I don't have a problem with people using "Christian" in a narrow sense.  I think it's just less confusing in most contexts not to use it that way.

If you are interested in reading about ranges of meaning for words, here are a couple articles:

The Living Word by Peter Ludlow
Word Senses and Taxonomies 


lew said...

While I do not necessarily disagree with your assertion on semantics, the use of language such as you did is actually vulgar no matter where you are in 'socieity'. It may not be 'recognized' as such, but it is.

If I said I was going to F**K your wife or mother, or to tell you to F yourself, no matter how you slice it, it's vulgar. A much nicer and more Christ like response would be to use other words.

It's what comes out of your mouth.

There is so much I can agree with you on your blog, but this kind of stuff is just plain ole wrong. In fact, we're told not to tell someone their are raca for crying out loud!

Steve Kimes said...

The use of the "f" word is excellent in this context. And I know of a couple contexts in which to say to someone "go f yourself" might be considered low-class, but not offensive. The reason is because it is said as a joke and it is accepted that way. It isn't wrong to say that, just an indication that someone is of a different class structure.

The point about raca is also interesting because Jesus uses the term "fool" to describe the Pharisees in Matt 23:17. Which just goes to show that it isn't the word, but how you use it that's significant. :)