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The meaning of words

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"I don't know what you mean by 'glory,'?" Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. "Of course you don't—till I tell you. I meant 'there's a nice knock-down argument for you!'?"

"But 'glory' doesn't mean 'a nice knock-down argument'," Alice objected.

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less."

(Alice Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Caroll)


In a sense Humpty Dumpty was right. Words mean what we want them to mean.


Dictionaries are not regulators of meaning. They search out the usage of words and inform us of that usage. If enough Humptys started to use the word ‘glory’ to mean 'a nice knock-down argument' then in time that would be a definition given in a Dictionary, and someone using it in that sense would be correct.


To that extent the flexibility of English to make new meanings for words, or to shade meanings for words, is both a strength and a weakness. It is a strength because it makes English very adaptable to new situations and needs. It is a weakness because it leads to misunderstandings and confusion. In a discussion two parties may be using the same word but with different meanings.


This also leads to the logical fallacy of equivocation where a word is used in an argument but with different meanings.


In a sense a word is a container into which we put meanings. We may empty out the original contents and refill it with our own selection of meanings. That may sound pointless but it may be useful. An example is baptism, which is the English word derived from the Greek bapto.


The origins of baptism lie in Judaism with the ritual bathing known as tevilah in Hebrew, in a mikvah. When the Jews used Greek they did not want to use the Greek words for bath and bathing because they were associated with communal nudity, homosexuality and gossip. So they borrowed another word (bapto), emptied out the original meaning and inserted their own. The label baptism therefore meant what they intended it to mean; to the meanings they put on the container. The name wasn’t chosen at random, so of course there is still some association with the original Greek meaning. But it can be misleading to argue too much from the Greek usage.


Another problem with English words is that the meaning of a word may change over time. New meanings may be added and old ones discarded, or just added to.


The word “call” has, according to the Collins Concise English Dictionary, 28 meanings as a verb and 18 as a noun.


The word worship originally had a broad meaning of being worthy and until recently we (in England anyway) used to address judges as “your worship”. We still refer to mayors in this way, e.g. “The Right Worshipful Lord Mayor...”


The Protestant Archbishop Thomas Cranmer wrote the Anglican book of common prayer (1549). The marriage ceremony in use until quite recently included the line from the groom to the bride “with my body I thee worship”.


In more recent times Protestants have narrowed to usage to mean something that is given to God alone.


This is all important in apologetics because we sometimes use the same words but mean different things. That difference may be important theologically but it could be that it’s just different - but equally valid.


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