Words Don’t Mean Things (Explorations in the Art of Grammar Series #5)

I meant to post this near the end of summer 2022 as part of our series on Grammar, but alas, it got away from me. If you want to read the rest of the series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

One of the more surprisingly enjoyable reads of my college career was Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson. I loved (and still love) literature, but a biography of a guy who created a dictionary seemed like an exercise in linguistic futility. I was wrong. I found myself fascinated by the writing, the story, and even the brilliant definitions Johnson wrote in his dictionary. I was impressed.

Years later, my love of literature led me to classical Christian education, where I am in my eleventh year teaching. Our Head of School, Dr. Brad Dolloff, has developed quite an impressive list of sayings (Dolloffisms, one might say); some are original, many are Lonesome Dove quotes, but all are memorable. One of his more common sayings over the years has been, “Words mean things.” Imagine the surprise of my students this past school year, therefore, when I told them I disagreed. “Words don’t mean things,” I said. “People mean things, and they use words to do it.”

Before you write me off (sorry, couldn’t avoid at least one writing/word pun), let me clarify that I do own a dictionary. At least, I have access to an electronic one; I’m not sure my 1970s collegiate dictionary will always cut it these days. And that is, in fact, part of my point. It proves difficult to say “words mean things” when the meaning of such words can, and sometimes often do, change. I suspect readers can identify a handful or two of words without much effort that mean something quite different than they did previously.

As I did several months ago with my students, I will back off the claim a little. Words, in one important sense, must “mean” something. If we do not share common definitions of words with those with whom we are communicating, our communication will face insurmountable obstacles. In another sense, my reading in the field of hermeneutics and linguistics (which, given the direction my dissertation took, is more than I ever cared to read), leads me to find the locus of meaning in the cognitive intent of the author/speaker. Words, then, spoken or written, are the medium used to deliver that meaning to the audience. If we use obscure words, or words in which the author/speaker and audience have different definitions, then we will face inevitable misunderstandings and failed communications.

But this is the state of our modern world. When I say marriage to most evangelical believers, they envision one man and one woman, but when I am speaking with many in the broader culture, marriage is not the same. We can look up “marriage” in the dictionary, but no such definition in a dictionary will convince either side to abandon their position for the other. Likewise, when I say a woman is pregnant, my evangelical friends will speak of the baby, although there is nothing wrong scientifically with calling the baby a “fetus.” But when many in culture speak of a woman who is pregnant, she is pregnant with a fetus, by which many of them mean a potential, or developing, human, but not yet a human with inherent rights. Again, dictionaries will not solve such problems, nor would we be wise to think that all people mean the same things by these words. In fact, most of the hot-button social issues of our day revolve around debates about the meaning of words: marriage, fetus, racism, nationalism, abuse, trauma, and dozens more.

I have no intention of entering into a political discussion in this forum, but I do think it helpful to explore how grammar (as we explored in several posts in a series this past summer) could play an important role in how we as Christians lovingly, respectfully, and wisely speak to those outside the faith or outside our tradition or set of positions. Classical Christian education has the opportunity to help produce humans who speak with such love, respect, wisdom, and clarity. We must be careful with our words, even if they don’t mean things.

Feature Image Photo by Glen Carrie on Unsplash


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