What does that word mean? – 5: other important contexts

Posted: January 5, 2013 by J in Bible, Linguistics

Another sort of context that is vital for establishing word meaning is the social or ‘situational’ context.  We can state the principle like this:

What a word means to a particular community at a particular time and place – that is its meaning.

On the other hand, word meanings change over time and space, and so current usage is what we are looking for. Current, that is for the original setting in which the word was written or spoken.

This means checking against contemporary writing, especially those from the same culture or social setting as your author. Luke will help you determine word meanings in Paul – they were mates.

This truth undermines the traditional view that words have a ‘core meaning’ which can be accessed by studying their origins. The study of origins, called etymology, has in the past been a primary approach to determining meaning. The idea of etymology is that words are like onions, and over time they grow new outer layers. But if you peel back all those superficial layers, eventually you get to the core of the word, the essence of it, the word itself. You find out what that word is really all about. But etymology is another manifestation of the idea that words have a meaning in isolation, which they carry with them from place to place. As we have seen, this idea is no longer accepted by linguists. Words are flexible symbols, sponges that soak up and later let go of meaning – what they meant at one time does not necessarily carry over to a different time.

Take as an example the word nice. It comes from the Latin nescius, meaning ignorant. In Middle English (around 1000 AD) ‘nice’ meant foolish or wanton. By the c.18th it meant exacting, precise or fastidious. Now it means – well, you know what it means now. The point is that the meaning of ‘nice’ has not been determined by its origins for many centuries now. There is no core meaning preserved over the aeons.

For many words, usage has changed less over time, and retained something closer to the meaning implied by the word’s root or origin. But even in these cases, it is usage that determines the meaning, not etymology. A word’s origin may shed light on current usage, but it is a most unreliable guide to word meaning.

To return to James Barr’s demolition job on TDNT, he successfully critiqued it for treating words as though they have a ‘core’ or ‘fundamental’ meaning which endures over time. I.e. the work was based on now-discredited linguistic assumptions about etymology.

In spite of the widespread acceptance that etymology does not control meaning, it is still very common to hear Bible teachers speak of the ‘core’ meaning of a word, or speak of a word’s origins as giving the ‘inside story’ of what the word is really trying to get at.


Let’s take as an example John Stott’s definition of the word ‘redemption’ in the NT, from his The Cross of Christ.

For at its most basic to ‘redeem’ is to buy back. …And ransom is the correct word to use [for this]. The Greek words lytroo and apolutrosis are derived from lytron (‘a ransom’ or ‘price of release’) which was almost a technical term in the ancient world for the purchase of …a slave. p.205

Notice the two main features of the etymological fallacy here:

  • the idea of a ‘most basic’ or core meaning inherent in a word, which underlies all others, and which a word retains long-term
  • definition based on derivation or the origin of the word: i.e. on etymology

Stott claims ‘ransom’ is the correct meaning of ‘redemption’, since the word’s etymology points that way. His argument is invalid due to the fallacy embedded in his methodology. He has ignored the importance of ‘situational context’,  and so not searched for the current usage. As a result he has not shown that ‘redemption’ meant ‘ransom price’ to the community of the early church, in the c.1st A.D. (Whether it did or not is another question, the point is he hasn’t proved his claim.)


Words are not trying to ‘get at’ anything. They have no intentions. Words are just signs which point wherever we aim them. And then when we reposition them, they point somewhere different. Words are not like onions, they have no inside: words are all external, what they mean on the surface is what they mean.

This is quite liberating for the ordinary Bible reader. All that historical background knowledge that language scholars have access to and you don’t, it doesn’t actually help that much in determining word meaning. In fact it may point in the wrong direction and mislead.  There are no secrets to be revealed about words. They have no hidden, inner meanings. The question is, how does this community use this word? And you’ve got access to the primary ‘social context’ for the NT writers: you can check other writings from the very same community, written in the same generation. They’re in the New Testament!

Tomorrow: Sacred texts

  1. jeltzz says:

    Okay, I have been reading along, and I really think you are misrepresenting what the arbitrary connection between signifier and signified itself means.

    So, words don’t have a direct correspondence to referents. They don’t have a intrinsic ‘meaning’, but they only have a meaning in relationship to other signs. They can be arbitrary and flexible, but they do not exist as infinitely flexible in a given moment, which is what you seem to imply. Rather words in an instant are part of a complex system. Your examples read like this:

    In sentence “I came home from the post-office and gave a shangolgo to my wife”, the word shangolgo is our ‘unknown’. Even if we knew what it meant, your point is that we need to look at he primary context of this sentence to deduce it. Which is true, but not very helpful. About all the rest of the sentence lets me configure is that shangolgo is some kind of ‘thing’ that can be given to a person.

    But what you don’t really make apparent in your descriptions, is that every other single word in this sentence is also not intrinsically meaningful. What I am getting at is that ‘usage’ is a far stronger player than ‘immediate context’. You can only start to deal with how the immediate context shapes a word if you have dealt with usage (conversely, in every instance of other examples, usage must come first, leading to a difficult recursive loop, you can never, in a sense, start with the local context, but you must).

    All the words in our example sentence depend on their relationship to other words. The web of relationships between signs in a language is vast, and it’s that that gives words what I would like to call their ‘core’.

    Now, I am going to use ‘core’ in a different sense to the one you have. By ‘core’, I mean here the relatively stable range of signification that a word has at a particular time. what that ‘core’ meaning is can change, as in your good example of ‘nice’. Furthermore, its edges are fuzzy. For example, ‘cup’ has a fairly stable core in Aust. English, it refers to cylindrical drinking containers. The borders with ‘mug’ and ‘glass’ can sometimes be fuzzy. Also, depending on the context, ‘cup’ is readily a verb with a related but different meaning.

    If we wanted to change the significance of ‘cup’ it would require either mass-agreement, or else mass change. A significant proportion of our fuzzy-edged linguistic ‘community’ would have to start using ‘cup’ in a different place in our system, and over time this would drag its meaning from ‘cup’ to whatever else, maybe we could use ‘cup’ for ‘shangolgo’. But all this time the much broader context of millions of utterances and our learned shared patterns of language would make it difficult for us *not* to associate ‘cup’ with a drinking tumbler.

    Etymology gives you a diachronic sense of a word’s signified. That’s the value in studying a word’s origin. Not to delimit its ‘true’ meaning, but to understand how its current significance derived over time from a root or another word (which itself may have shifted its place in the system).

    I am going to stop before I reach a comment limit, but I’m happy to come back to this.

  2. Alan Wood says:

    For those interested, a really fun frolic through etymology and the polychrome beauty of words is C.S. Lewis’s Studies in Words. He uses the concepts of core meaning and ultimate derivation. And he moves across Greek, Latin, a bunch of European languages and English, so he’s open to the charge of treating with concepts, not words themselves. But it’s the pitfalls in confusing concepts and words that he is interested in. The book’s emphasis is squarely on the diachronic changes (especially the deceptive ones) in some significant words.

    I understand the rhetorical aim of your ‘words have no core meaning’ claim, but I think it’s overstated. We use words as if they have meaning, and we don’t push them infinitely far from their home range in any one discourse. The work Luther has to do to redefine words as he goes along, or the need to define your terms in an academic essay, indicate both the weakness of words (your claim) but also their stubbornness and inertia as parts of a shared language game (as Seumas says, they don’t shift easily).

    • Jonathan says:

      @ Alan and jeltzz

      Guys, thanks for your helpful comments. This Dummies Guide approach has its drawbacks, one being it tends to oversimplify and can lack clarity. Especially breaking it up into multiple posts, context is lost! Misunderstandings are likely.

      Back in post 2 I say that words cannot mean just anything, but have a range of meanings, beyond which you’ll need a different word. But that was a few posts back and pretty brief! There’s a whole post on this coming up soon.

      I’m using the word ‘core’ in a particular way. I talk about the core meaning which endures over time and comes from the word’s etymology. That’s the core meaning I am saying words don’t have. I’m not saying words have no meaning at all.

      jeltzz, I agree with much of what you say. But I think the term ‘core’ is unhelpful for describing word meaning, because it gives the impression that the meaning is somehow lodged inside the word, as though it were internally generated. When in reality meaning is something we lay onto words by how we use them: externally generated.

      A more helpful term linguists use to talk about word meaning is…coming up in a later post. Stay tuned.

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