Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

Why Words Matter

Words matter. We all know that. We even learn a nursery rhyme to try to convince ourselves that they don’t: “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” But of course that’s a lie. Words can hurt.

Words matter for lots of reasons. If we don’t define words the same way, it’s difficult to communicate with each other properly. For example, the word enlightened can mean that someone has achieved spiritual knowledge or insight – one has come to see the light. It can also mean that someone has achieved a well-informed outlook that is independent of spirituality.

Both definitions are correct. But if someone is discussing enlightenment in a spiritual sense while the listener is hearing about enlightenment in a secular way, the two people aren’t really communicating as well as they might assume.

People often get annoyed with me when I want to define terms. They’ll say, “That’s just semantics” when I try to narrow a definition to something we can all agree on, but semantics (the meaning of a word, phrase or sentence) is important when trying to understand exactly what it is that the person communicating is actually trying to say.

On the other hand, sometimes it helps when we don’t know precisely what someone means by the words spoken. For example, two nations (like the United States and North Korea) might find themselves in disagreement over how they both ought to behave. One might accuse the other of violating international law by testing missiles while the other might accuse the first of improperly implementing sanctions in an attempt to suppress its ability to reach its full potential.

The President threatens North Korea. The Dictator threatens the United States. No one knows exactly how far each leader will go. Both sides say they won’t back down, yet both sides, for now, avoid a military confrontation.

Depending on which side you’re on, you’re likely to see your leaders’ words as correct. North Koreans believe that they must negotiate from a position of strength while Americans think that if North Koreans ever get the ability to strike the US mainland with a missile, that would be a disaster.

Perhaps it would. We don’t know for certain that North Korea would attack us if it could, but we suspect that it might, so we do what we can to prevent that from being a possibility.

They fire off missiles. We send an armada to the Sea of Japan. Our actions bring us closer to the brink of war while our words leave a great deal of room for interpretation, which forces everyone to slow down and try to ascertain the meaning behind the threats. If either side knew exactly what the other meant, that side would have an enormous advantage.

So words matter. Sometimes it’s important that we understand what our neighbor is saying, and sometimes it’s important that we don’t.


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