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Words don’t have meanings, they have uses

McKinley Valentine — 1 min read
Words don’t have meanings, they have uses
Photo by Andreas Fickl / Unsplash

That is a quote is from a bible scholar and he's talking about people inappropriately literally translating words from Hebrew or Greek or whatever and then using them to make dogmatic religious rulings. But I'm absolutely thrilled by it as an editor. Not "what does it mean?" but "what can you use it for?"

This is fundamentally a much more true and useful way to think about words and definitions. It allows for different contexts and tones and stuff. When someone says "[Word] means [meaning]" they are almost always being reductive.

Often that's fine - you just want to know what type of fruit is going to be served with your blini and you don't need to know all the other ways that we use those words (apples to oranges, going bananas, going pear-shaped).

It would be annoying if your translator wasn't reductive. But be extremely leery of anyone who prescriptively says "[Word] means [single meaning]" in a broader context or in a way that shuts down the conversation. Words have uses, not meanings.

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This piece was originally published in The Whippet #95 – subscribe to get the next one in your inbox!

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