Commentary

What Do Our Words Mean?

There is a 1938 book by one Stuart Chase entitled The Tyranny of Words. I would recommend it to anyone, such as myself, who is delighted by language, or to those who often find themselves talking more than they ought, as I do. Read it and you will find Mr. Chase caught in a great panic as he gains “knowledge of the most appalling character.” (1) In other words, he’s realized a problem: how do we know what our words mean? Words, Chase says, are the tools of his trade, and if he is not certain that he knows how his tools work, how can he safely handle them? What is more, how can we trust people will know how their own words work?

Have you sat still to determine if you trust your use of words? This is no small matter. God by speech created the heavens and the earth (Gen. 1:3). Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is the Word became flesh (John 1:14). The Faith is a faith that comes by hearing, and this hearing comes by the Word of God (Rom. 10:17). Our God does not undervalue the meaning of words, and so we cannot be apathetic in what leaves our mouths. If we trust the Lord Jesus Christ when he says that we are accountable for every careless word (Mat 12:36), then the question stands before us: do we know what we are talking about?

Adam, our first father, set many language milestones: in naming the beasts of the earth he became the first of the beasts to utter speech (Gen. 2:19). A few verses later, Adam wrote a quatrain for his wife and so became the first published poet (2:23). By the next chapter Adam becomes the first human to tell a tattle (3:12). Everyone who has lived and spoken on earth descends from this first speaker, and as we have multiplied and covered the face of the earth, our voices have multiplied and filled the air. Humankind has in its time developed its many thousands of languages, its scores of alphabets, and fantastic devices to record, preserve, and replay all that we wish to say. We are hopelessly drunk on our words, gulping down bucketfuls of language with books, radio, and digital podcasts.

What noise! And here might Chase’s fear become our own—does any of it mean anything? Chase gives some examples to show the dilemma. Conjure an image represented by a word like ‘dog.’ Fine enough, but now think of something like ‘Germany.’ Dogs exist whether or not we give them a name, but for higher-order abstractions such as ‘Germany,’ without words they simply would not exist. A dog wags its tail at the sight of another dog but is not aware of the change in authority when it crosses the border from France to Germany. Begrudgingly, though, a consistent definition for a word like ‘Germany’ can be made. The real challenge comes with even higher abstractions: ‘idealism,’ or ‘liberty,’ perhaps. It is clear to see that at the very least, some words are more meaningless than others (2).

Now, some words are only selectively meaningless, and we call these ‘jargon.’ Christians love jargon: ‘Lord’s Supper,’ ‘Justification,’ and ‘Born-again’ are a handful of examples. Unfamiliar though they may be to the non-believer, however, none of these are of such high-level abstractions to make defining them an impossibility. Those words operate in another realm within the Church: think of ‘a Biblical Worldview,’ or ‘Theological Liberalism.’ Both phrases might be important to our lives as Christians, but their importance means nothing if we are not certain of what the words themselves mean in the first place. The problem is only expounded as the culture around us offers a buffet line of words to try out for ourselves. Do we know what ‘social justice’ truly means, or are we just guessing past each other? Are all of us clear on the definitions of ‘Critical Race Theory’ or ‘Christian Nationalism’ or ‘Post-structuralism’? If not, then Mr. Chase might recommend we figure them out, or take a hiatus from using them in discussion.

In the meantime however, consider his warning: “are we wise, or just wordy?” (3). The first step to answering this question is to consciously measure our speech. The second step is to turn to our sources and ask: do we know what we are hearing?

The second epistle from Saint Peter holds a powerful plea to be on the lookout for words that ensnare:

But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep (2 Peter 2:1-3)

Notice the verbiage—false teaching comes secretly, subtly. The devil deals in subtlety, planting ideas with language we do not know to question. The danger is that, imitative creatures we are, the hearer who knows not what he hears is free to become a speaker who knows not what he says. Not all false teaching comes maliciously; often it is only parroted by some poor soul using a vocabulary he has no business using. To quote Chase once more, “bad language is now the mightiest weapon in the arsenal of despots and demagogues.” (4) While despots and demagogues (and false teachers) know the weapons they use, thoughtlessly mimicking their ‘bad language’ is putting their weapons in the hands of the untrained, becoming a danger to ourselves and others.

In our world of words, it is simply unthinkable that we continue to use language without care. As society and the Church develop new phrases to build their vocabularies, it is imperative that we move forward with measured discernment. We must search out the meanings of the words we use for the sake of clarity for both ourselves and our listeners.


Works Cited:

  1. Chase, Stuart. The Tyranny of Words. Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966, pp. 13
  2. Ibid pp. 10
  3. Ibid pp. 194
  4. Ibid pp. 21

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