What does that word mean? – 7: Sense

Posted: January 8, 2013 by J in Bible, Linguistics

We have seen that ‘situational context’ is a primary context for determining word meaning. One implication of this is that cultural issues will affect how a word is ‘heard’. Where I come from, the word ‘poker machine’ or ‘pokies’ (always in the plural!) brings up images of enjoyable afternoons spent testing your luck – or of problem gamblers sitting in rows in a club, depending on the viewpoint of the hearer. The mere word may bring with it feelings of excitement and longing, or of disgust and anger. ‘Social context’ provides words with a great deal of their meaning.

And yet the basic idea, ‘pokies’, remains constant regardless of social setting. Linguists say that words convey meaning of two sorts. First there is the basic thing the word refers to: the ‘referent’. There are objects called poker machines, and the word ‘pokies’ refers to them. Many words have this ‘naming’ function: they label some thing in the world outside the page.

The other thing words convey is ‘sense’, the mental content called up by the symbol. This is sometimes called the ‘connotation’. Words do not just label, they function to create a response in the hearer, perhaps even an emotional response. The word ‘police’ does not merely refer to a certain social role or institution. It also carries with it, or perhaps creates where it goes, reactions: whether feelings of fear, guilt, resentment, safety, trust or whatever. Likewise the word ‘Bible’.

Is this mental content a response to the word, or to the thing the word refers to (the referent)? Probably a bit of both. The images and feelings evoked by the word ‘pokies’ are probably evoked largely by the referent: the machines themselves, and the things people do with them. But the responses provoked by the word ‘one-armed-bandit’ certainly include a reaction to the word itself!

In other words, we have three things: word, referent and sense – sign, thing pointed to, and associated connotations. These three are inter-connected. Referent and sense together make up the meaning of the word.

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The sense created by a word is usually closely related to the sense of other words in the immediate context. Consider the following sentences.

1. The young police officer was a hero who gave his life in the service his community.

2. Anti-corruption probe finds police ‘culture of contempt’.

The sense or mental content evoked by the word ‘police’ in each sentence is radically different. The difference comes from the sense of the sentence in which it is located. This sense is part of the meaning which ‘flows’ into words from their neighbours.

Sense, even more than referent, is highly influenced by social setting, or situational context. The word ‘police’ will convey a different sense depending on which part of your city you come from, your age, your socio-economic status and a host of other social factors. This ‘sense’ aspect of word meaning, then, is extremely variable and indeed unpredictable. It builds an instability into language which should banish any idea of pinning down word-meaning definitively. All meanings are, at least partly, local and temporary.

More than anything else does, the awareness that words convey ‘sense’ helps us see that word meaning is complex, not simple, and variable, not fixed. It pushes us to ask not ‘What does this word mean?’ but ‘What sorts of thing does this word mean to them?



In Isaiah 42:1-4, the word ‘judgement’ (Hebrew mishpat) occurs three times. Does this term have a positive or a negative sense here?

1      Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth judgement to the nations.

3      a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth judgement.
4     He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established judgement in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching.

Here the context is of delight, mercy, care for the weak, and faithfulness. The peoples long for the servant’s arrival. The sense in this passage is entirely positive, and this sense colours the term ‘judgement’. Here judgement is seen as something good which the earth needs and waits for. Judgement means protecting the weak. The business of judgment is being viewed from the point of view of those who suffer injustice. Judgement here is not primarily an event, but a state of affairs. It is best translated here with the word ‘justice’.

This positive sense is an important part of the word’s meaning. By judgement, Isaiah means that the Servant will set things to rights. In fact ‘judgement’  (mishpat) always carries a positive sense in Isaiah.

Tomorrow: buddy words


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