“Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.”
-T.S. Eliot

Words. Such mercurial and imprecise things. We take them for the real – we may respond to words with visceral intensity forgetting that they are symbols. (A symbol of course can be a powerful thing). Here we move into the mysterious area of semiotics or “… the study of meaning-making, the study of sign processes and meaningful communication” (Wikipedia).

In spite of the existence of dictionaries and the best intentions of etymologists (not to be confused with entomologists!) words mean different things to different people. And even when we succeed in grasping these little eels by their tails, they wriggle madly in their determination to connote, imply, signify, suggest. They mislead even as they inform. To one man, God suggests a benevolent father-figure. To another, the word God is synonymous with an unpredictable and vindictive tyrant. To an abused child, father may be a word that inspires fear and self-hatred even as it inspires respect and affection in a child from a loving home. Such is the power and the enigma of words. That words can have multiple meanings doesn’t help us at all, for then we rely on context to understand.  Contranyms are words with completely opposite connotations: I cleave (join) to my wife yet cleave (seperate) a log in half. I am bound (restrained) by ropes but I am bound for a foreign land (travelling to). To the people or the then eastern bloc who experienced the oppression of the Soviet union, the word comrade easily carried within it sinister undertones. Yet in the South African trade union movement and in “Struggle parlance” comrade remains a kind of benign shibboleth.

Words shift in meaning through the years and as they move around the world. “Gay” once meant “happy”. In 1840, “promiscuous” meant “a variety of things in one place”.  the colloquial American “fanny” means backside; the colloquial English “fanny” means vagina. Yet a few generations ago it was a perfectly respectable woman’s name.


I have a book by G.Eberle entitled “Dangerous Words: talking about God in an age of fundamentalism”.




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