What’s in a Word: Why Opening Our Mouths Should Be A Little Scary

I happen to love words. I’m forever curious about their history, their morphing nuances, and how they’ve arrived at their modern usage. Words have good stories.

Plus, they make for powerful art. My spine stiffens a little at that ridiculous adage, a picture is worth a thousand words. That is likely true—sometimes. But any honest analysis of that “truth” must allow that a whole lot depends upon the picture and the words in question.

I admit, I may be somewhat defensive for these little bits of syntax that are a source of joy and fascination, and a cherished means of expression for me, but I feel that words are unfairly picked on.

Words fail.                                                                                                                          Words are finite.                                                                                         Words are meaningless.                                                                                                    Words are inadequate.                                                                                                 Words cannot express.

In the worst attacks, they are portrayed as second-rate, foggy, and muddled attempts at expressing flawed perceptions of ultimately unknowable reality.

Did we ever consider that maybe it’s a case of user error and not the fault of words at all? When we blame words, I don’t think we know what we are attacking.

If what we mean by a word is the particular set of sounds we use to communicate an idea, then sure, this is a culturally-based, transitory thing. People in different places use different patterns of sound to express the same ideas. And even within a single people group, language changes over time. This makes words sort of a passing fancy of little consequence.

And if sound is the main component of a word, then I must hang my head in shame anyway—because I think almost all other English speakers speak it prettier than we do here in America. I love my country, but it seems to me that our version of this lovely language is comparatively lazy and mumbley sounding.

But is the sound, and associated written form really what a word amounts to?

Dictionary.com offers this definition:

Word                                                                                                            noun                                                                                                                1. a unit of language, consisting of one or more spoken sounds or their written representation, that functions as a principal carrier of meaning.

It’s that last bit that should earn words a little more respect. Words bear meaning. 

Words are profound. Words connect and resonate with the human soul. Even to the point of producing a physical response. For good or for bad. Haven’t we all read lines so beautiful, exciting, or true—that they actually made us feel exhilarated, alive, and energized? And conversely, haven’t each of us heard words spoken that broke our heart, and made us sick and weary?

Why is this?

I believe it is because the meat of a word is the idea, concept, reality, or truth that it represents and communicates.

If you reject the existence of knowable reality or the possibility of propositional truth, you may want to stop reading here. There is nothing I can do for you in this space, and everything following will be irrelevant to you.

If, however, you believe reality is there to be known, that it exists because God exists, that it flows out of who he is, and that he created us with the ability to meaningfully experience, discover, and interact with it—please read on.

A word (whether it is thought, spoken, or written) is an interaction with eternal reality. Our words affirm, celebrate, perpetuate, explore, question, resist, deny, or blaspheme what is.

And what is is what it is because God is who he is.

When we understand this, we understand that no matter what phonetic combinations we happen to use, our words are very weighty.

Have you noticed that the one who says he is the truth also says,

“But I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment.” Matt 12:36

All things considered, this makes a whole lot of sense.





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