If you wanted to know the meaning of a word, you would look it up in a dictionary. Now that often means looking it up online rather than in a physical book. But the dictionary remains to be a useful and simple tool. Look up a word alphabetically and find the definition(s) listed behind, along with other useful information such as its grammatical part of speech. It is a very simple and straight forward process.

But the simple, straight forward nature of dictionaries can be misleading in terms of meaning. Meaning is so much more than definition. There is history to be taken into account, along with connotations and context. Dictionary definitions do little to help this. Events and people give words new meaning. You often certain groups ‘hijacking’ words for their own purposes, associating them with different meanings. Many times, these are controversial groups giving words new meanings that a perceived to be negative by the general populous. But not always. Often these new meanings come about quite innocently. For example, people of various spiritual traditions often use the same vocabulary to speak about very different ideas. A southern Baptist and a New Ager may both talk about Jesus Christ, but they use that term with very different meanings. It is not done intentionally to spite another group, but nonetheless it can cause confusion and upset.

Can we continue to use ‘hijacked’ words, or those imbued with new meaning, according to their standard dictionary definitions? Or will they be tainted with their new meanings forever? If there is one thing this conundrum ensures it is that language is alive and meaning is not static. Instead it is perpetually changing. Together we shape language, and determine what meanings remain relevant and which become obsolete. Meaning changes but it isn’t fickle, it’s a powerful force that changes how we view and speak about our world. Let’s remember that as we choose how to address each other, what to publish, and what to listen to.


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