Usage Determines Meaning (Applause Please)

by May 31, 2013Linguistics6 comments


When my three-year-old son asks while we sit in a large crowd, “Why are the people clapping?” he’s essentially asking, “What is the meaning of this applause?”

My answer is going to be very situation-specific: are we in a concert hall at a concert—and is the clapping taking place after or during the music, by the audience or by the performers? Are we at a political rally? Are we at a baseball stadium during a double-header, and are we singing “Sweet Caroline” or did a third-baseman just make an awesome stab at a line drive? Are we part of a group of preschoolers and parents making rain storm sounds? Are we, μη γενοιτο, dancing a flamenco?

My brain doesn’t even stop to ask these questions; I know what situation we’re in. So I say to my son, “They’re clapping because they enjoyed the song that woman just sang.”

But the next time he hears group clapping he’s liable to ask, “Why are they clapping? I didn’t see any woman singing a song!” And I’ll explain that, this time, “They’re clapping because that man hit the baseball over the fence!”

Then he’ll start to catch on: large groups clapping in our culture usually do so intending to convey approbation and commendation. But if there’s music actively playing and the clapping is rhythmic, it means something different. He’s quick; it won’t take him more than two experiences with each major kind of clapping to get it.

Context is what activates a given meaning, calls it off the bench from among the other possible meanings and says, “You’re up!” The situation calls forth the meaning from a range of options. And it helps that that that range in our culture is not infinite. You can use clapping to communicate various meanings, but you can’t, in our culture, use clapping to say, “There are three clocks out of sync in the back of our shed.” Or even just “eleemosynary.”

Words and Meaning

Asking “What does this word mean?” is like asking, “What does clapping mean?” You simply must know something about the context in which the word takes place before you can answer the question.

Some words have such a narrow range of meaning that it’s safe to answer, “What does eleemosynary mean?” without stopping to say first, “Read me the sentence you found it in.”

But with a fair number of words, it’s important to answer “What does this mean?” with “Where did you find it?”

This is why James Barr encourages Bible interpreters to broaden their focus from words to sentences:

Theological thought of the type found in the NT has its characteristic linguistic expression not in the word individually but in the word-combination or sentence…. [Since] important elements in the NT vocabulary were not technical…. the attempt to relate the individual word directly to the theological thought leads to the distortion of the semantic contribution made by words in contexts; the value of the context come to be seen as something contributed by the word, and then it is read into the word as its contribution where the context is in fact different. Thus the word becomes overloaded with interpretative suggestion. (Semantics of Biblical Language, 233-234)

This is what my son does when he assumes that group clapping means “that woman just sang well” when there’s no singing woman around at all.

This is what interpreters do, for example, when they assume that ἀγάπη (agape) means everything-the-Bible-says-about-love everywhere it appears.

The Bible has a great deal to say about love. Let’s just take three of those ideas:

  1. Christian love ought to lead to self-sacrifice (Eph 5:25ff.).
  2. The whole law hangs on love for God and neighbor (Matt 22:37–40).
  3. God is love (1 John 4:8, 16).

Now take those three ideas, just those three, which are indisputably part of the overall concept of Christian love. Note that they all use a form of the word ἀγάπη (agape). Now mash ’em up together into a meaning pie, and pour that meaning into this sentence, which also uses ἀγάπη (agape):

Woe to the Pharisees who neglect the love of God but who love the best seat in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces!” (Luke 11:42–43) (cf. Mat 6:5 and Mat 23:5–7, which uses φιλέω for basically the same situation.)

Can the ἀγάπη (agape) word group possibly mean anything like the three ideas listed above? Did the Pharisees love the places of honor at feasts self-sacrificially? Does the whole law hang on love for being called rabbi? Can we say that God is love-for-greetings-in-marketplaces? No.

Without a context, a word has no meaning, just like group clapping never happens in a situationless vacuum in space. With a context, its possible meanings are limited.  Ἀγάπη (agape) simply can’t mean all that evangelical interpreters typically say it means. Context not only activates one or more possible meanings, it eliminates others.

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Leave a comment.

  1. Dan S.

    “Love” it. May it never be, indeed! =) I’m still puzzled by how you are using “eleemosynary” in the sentence. Are you coining a verb? Not intending to by “uncharitable” at all.

  2. Mark L. Ward, Jr.

    I’m not sure I’m following your question… I’m not coining a verb, no.

  3. Dan S.

    Sorry for being cryptic, Mark. I was trying to play with the words. This is a great article, and I loved your illustration. Where my mind got tripped up is just a curiosity I’m trying to satisfy. You said:

    You can use clapping to communicate various meanings, but you can’t, in our culture, use clapping to say, “There are three clocks out of sync in the back of our shed.” Or even just “eleemosynary.”

    I looked up eleemosynary, and it appears to be an adjective, so I still didn’t understand the example. What can we not use clapping for? I’m probably just being obtuse. Forgive me if your having to explain that ruins the beauty of the article.

    • Mark L Ward Jr

      Ah, okay. All I mean is that you couldn’t have a conversation in contemporary English that goes like this, “Have you ever sent money to Samaritan’s Purse?” “Yes, as clap-clap-clap-clap institutions go, it seems reliable.” Is that better?

  4. Dan S.

    got it. I could see myself clapping as I said that. jk

  5. Ron N.

    I did a search on test/temptations a year or two ago and saw peirasmos translated differently depending on context–thank you for describing this from the other side! Ties it up a little neater–and I appreciated another comment you made elsewhere about pausing to wonder what we are missing by having two descriptions for the original Greek word.


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