What does that word mean? – 8: Buddy words

Posted: January 9, 2013 by J in Bible, Linguistics


Words have their meaning influenced by the other words they are found with, their ‘co-text.’ This is especially true of the ‘sense’ conveyed by a word, as we have seen. The sense of a word is usually closely related to the sense of other words in the immediate context.

For many words, a brief study of their co-text will reveal that they have preferred partners, other words which they like to hang out with. These ‘buddy words’ have a widespread influence on each others’ meaning, because they so often form part of each other’s context. When a group of words hangs together regularly like this, they create an area or domain of meaning.

Linguists called these areas of meaning semantic domains or semantic fields. A semantic field is an area of meaning created by a group of buddy words, words which are often found together. We will call these fields of meaning. The meaning in these fields is highly unified: fields of meaning are about something.

Think knife, fork, spoon, plate, cup. These words together create a semantic domain in the area of ‘dinner-table equipment.’ We know what ‘plate’ means here because the other words help locate it in this field of meaning. Elsewhere, ‘plate’ could mean something very different – it might also belong in fields of meaning regarding dentistry or geology, or baseball. Generally the context will make this clear, controlling word meaning without the need for explanation. Buddy words will create a field of meaning in which ‘plate’ will be heard rightly. The word ‘oil’, when accompanied by words like ‘fry’, ‘pan’ and ‘cook’ will be heard differently from ‘oil’ in a context of ‘check’, ‘sump, and ‘bonnet’.

Words which share a field of meaning flavour each other. Meaning – being a liquid kind of thing – soaks from one word into the other, like flavours mixing in a slow-cooked dish.  And so all the buddy words gain meaning from the whole field. This is especially true of  ‘sense’, that most flexible component of word-meaning which ‘bleeds’ its flavour more readily (see previous post on ‘sense’). This bleeding can even happen when the other words in the field are not present in the immediate context. If the field of meaning is well-enough established, the writer can draw a word from that field, the other words kind of hovering there in the background, unseen, influencing the meaning.

Recognising fields of meaning can be of great help in determining word-meaning, especially for grasping the ‘sense’ of the word. So they’re worth looking out for. It is a worry that Bible scholars often neglect this important context when doing their word studies. The concept has been around for some decades now, it’s time our scholars caught up.

The way to discover meaning-fields is inductively, by noticing buddy words. Which words often hang out together? We can recognise these fields, then, by paying attention to immediate context.



In the NT there is a cluster of buddy words relating to the Holy Spirit, which are found together over and over again. They are Spirit, power, glory, life, and resurrection (pneuma, dynamis, doxa,  zoe, egeiro and anastasis – for examples see Eph. 3:16; 1Cor. 15:43-45; 2Cor. 3:18; Romans 6:4).

This nexus of terms pervades the NT, especially in the writings of Paul. The terms are sometimes used as synonyms, in the sense that they have significant overlap in meaning. e.g. Luke 1:17 ‘in the spirit and power of Elijah’, or Luke 1:35 ‘The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.’ Again, 1Peter. 4:14 ‘If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you.’

These are obvious examples of overlap in meaning, but in fact, because of the frequency with which these terms are found together, they are continually influencing each others’ meaning. For Paul in particular, these terms comprise a kind of network, a field of meaning, to do with the eschatological role of the Spirit.

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This means that when one of the terms is used, generally its meaning is flavoured by the other words in the ‘Spirit’ field. They go together in Paul’s thinking. This is because for Paul, the Spirit is the one who brings in a new world order in which death and dishonour and weakness are replaced by resurrection into a new, divine life, filled with glorious energy. These are the characteristics of the new life in the Spirit.

So when Paul says ‘power’, ‘glory’, ‘life’, or ‘raised’, he is usually thinking of the eschatological Spirit.

Let’s look at one of the verses cited above as examples of this semantic field: Romans 6:4.

…just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

Paul is holding back the term Spirit until chapter 8, for literary purposes: he wants it to make a big impact there. Here in ch.6  he has Christ raised ‘by the glory of the Father.’ But in ch.8:11, the Father raised Jesus and will raise us ‘by his Spirit’. Clearly ‘by his Spirit’ and ‘by the glory of the Father’ are synonymous phrases, two ways of saying the same thing. The Spirit can be called ‘the glory’.

But there’s more of this in Romans 6:4: Jesus died and rose ‘so that we might walk in newness of life.’ In Romans 8:4 we get the same idea, but this time God condemned his Son so that we could ‘walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.’ ‘Walking in newness of life’ equates to ‘walking according to the Spirit.’ ‘Newness of life’ is another way of talking about the Spirit, for ‘the Spirit is life’ (8:10).

So Paul in Romans 6 introduces these important motifs about the Spirit’s work in advance, preparing us for the tour-de-force of chapter 8 where it seems like the Spirit explodes onto the stage. Paul can do this because he has a whole cluster of terms to draw on which belong in the same semantic field as ‘Spirit’.

QUESTION: How might an awareness of this semantic domain affect our reading of, for example, Romans 1:16?

‘I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes…’


Tomorrow: meaning sets

For Keen Beans Only

Here’s a list, for those who want to see the details, of the other places these words hang out together.

1Cor. 15:43 It is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power.  44 It is sown a physical body, it is raised a Spiritual body.

Mat. 24:30 ‘the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven’ with power and great glory.

Luke 1:17 …in the spirit and power of Elijah,

Luke 1:35 The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you

Luke 4:14 Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit

John 5:21 Indeed, just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life

John 5:29 to the resurrection of life

John 6:63 It is the Spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are Spirit and life.

John 11:25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life

Acts 1:8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you;

Acts 2:32 This Jesus, God raised up…33 Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit

Acts 3:15 …you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead

Acts 4:33 With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus,

Acts 7:55 But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God

Acts 10:38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power,

Acts 23:8 The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, or angel, or spirit.

Rom. 1:3 declared to be Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead,

Rom. 6:8 that we will also live with him.  9 We know that Christ, being raised from the dead

Rom. 8:2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free…

Rom. 8:6 To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.

Rom. 8:10 But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.

Rom. 9:17 “I have raised you up for the very purpose of showing my power in you”

Rom. 15:13 by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Rom. 15:19 by the power of signs and wonders, through the power of the Spirit of God.

1 Cor. 2:4 with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power,

1 Cor. 6:14 And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power.

1 Cor. 15:21 the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being;  22 for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.

1Cor. 15:45 Thus it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.

2 Cor. 3:6 for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

2Cor. 3:18 And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.

2 Cor. 5:15 that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.

Gal. 3:5 does God supply you with the Spirit and work powerful miracles among you

Gal. 6:8 if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit.

Eph. 1:20 God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead

Eph. 2:5 made us alive together with Christ…  6 and raised us

Eph. 3:16 I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being,

Phil. 3:10 the power of his resurrection

Phil. 3:21 He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him

Col. 1:11 May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power,

Col. 2:12 raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.

Col. 3:4 When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.

1Th. 1:5 because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit

2Tim. 1:7 for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a Spirit of power

Heb. 2:4  while God added his testimony by  signs and wonders and various powerful miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit,

Heb. 11:19 …that God is powerful enough even to raise someone from the dead

1 Pet. 1:21 God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory,

1 Pet. 3:21 through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,  22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.

1Pet. 4:14 If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you.

Rev. 4:11 “You are worthy, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,

Rev. 7:12 “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honor
and power and might
be to our God forever

Rev. 11:11 But after the three and a half days, the spirit of life from God entered them

Rev. 15:8 8 and the temple was filled with smoke from the glory of God and from his power,

Rev. 19:1 Salvation and glory and power to our God

Quite a lot of them, aren’t there!

  1. […] Numbers. This makes it an easy place for us to start our study. In this context it hangs out with buddy words like ‘sin’, ‘offering’, ‘release of sins’, […]

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