“Thing” is now a Thing: What do recent changes to the English dictionary tells us about the meaning of Biblical words?
I’m just settling back into normal life after a week teaching “Advanced Biblical Exegesis” at RTS in Washington DC, and sure enough, just hours after I said said the sentence “it is actually good and necessary for the Oxford English Dictionary to release regular updates to its prestigious repository of words and their meanings,” the OED released just such an update. What is more, the actual update provides an interesting and helpful illustration of how words work, and how the way words work helps us interpret Biblical words. Have you ever looked at a translation and wondered “what does that word really mean?” If you have, you’re probably asking the wrong question.
“Thing” is now a Thing
One of the most interesting updates, in my opinion, is the addition of a new sense/usage to that very ordinary of English words, “thing.” In their summary, Oxford describes it this way:
The noun thing has been part of the English lexicon for more than a thousand years, but the OED now defines a new meaning which has only arisen in the past two decades. The new sense is defined as ‘a genuine or established phenomenon or practice’, and is often used in questions conveying surprise or incredulity, such as ‘is that even a thing?’ The earliest citation is from 2000, in an episode of the U.S. television programme, The West Wing: ‘Did you know that “leaf peeping” was a thing?’
I love this example of how words shift and change, and not just because I used the phrase “this is actually a thing” so often over the last 40-hours of teaching this week that I actually became a bit self-conscious about it. I love it because it perfectly demonstrates how a new usage for an ordinary word has developed over the last 20 years, and how that usage has moved from fringe to popular to “standard” usage, and how this new development, though understandable to a contemporary English speaker, might seem odd or different to someone not embedded in contemporary culture.
“Changing” the English Language is not a Gimmick; it’s a Necessity
In other words, I love this example because it captures how, despite typical backlash, the OED isn’t really “changing” the English language, but rather “describing” the present state of that language. This kind of thing is rarely popular. Oxford’s decision to “change” the definition of the word “thing” seems wrong to most people. The decision to alter the meaning of a word goes against much of our intuition regarding words and their meanings. We think words mean certain things necessarily and absolutely, and as evidence for that belief, consider the fact that whenever a “definitions” body like the OED does this sort of thing, there is always an almost inevitable outcry. “They’re changing the language! How dare they! And in deference to those pesky kids these days!”
OK, I get that response. Tradition is important. It’s truly a loss (for example) that we have to now use the word “awesome” in place of the older “awful.” The word “awful” no longer means “inspiring reverential awe or fear;” that definition is “archaic,” as the OED notes, and if you want proof that they are right tell your beloved they are looking “awful” today. So I agree with the traditionalist (in linguistics, the “prescriptivist”) that this shift in usage is a loss. It’s a loss because we no longer have a word that captures the sense of awe that “awful” used to capture; in a world where the loftiest possible attributive, the word “awesome,” can be applied without irony to a donut…. well, we’ve lost something.
However, though it may be a loss, it’s not one we have the power to prevent, and we cannot turn back the clock, and so it is good and necessary and desirable that our dictionaries get updated. Consider the alternative, the other side of things. Imagine you are a non-native English speaker and need to figure out what everyone is talking about when they say they are going to “google” that. Or how are you going to figure out what they mean when they say “Oh, yeah, avocado toast is a thing?” Ordinary people are saying these words and phrases. If you don’t have some access to that, you can’t figure out what people mean by them.
In short, language shifts, and it does so without our permission and in spite of our best efforts. It is only by describing these new uses for old words, and by even adding entirely new words (“email,” “tweet,” and “google” as a verb, to name some other recent OED additions), that the normative book we call a “dictionary” remains both helpful and relevant. This is the great irony of the dictionary; it is only by “changing” the definitions of words that it remains useful and thereby authoritative and normative.
How Words Work: Usage Determines Meaning
Here, then, is the payoff to this discussion. The meaning of a word is not inherent, necessary, absolute, or unchangeable (though it can’t mean anything you want it to). The meaning of a word is determined by the variety of ways in which it is used, rather than by the word’s “ontology.” As Carson puts it in his excellent Exegetical Fallacies, the meaning of a word is not “bound up with its shape or its components” (1996, p8). (Carson, by the way, is building on Silva’s Biblical Words and their Meaning, which I would commend to those looking for a more theoretical approach to these matters). Words do not have “essential” meanings, and so you cannot determine the meaning of a word by its component parts.
So what does determine what a word means? If meaning isn’t inherent in the word, what provides the “norm” by which words are meaningful? In a word: usage. The way in which words are used determines their meaning. The word has no meaning outside it’s usage, and its variable usage is its meaning. Linguists call this the “semantic domain” of a word. Any particular word has a set of possible ways in which it is used, and that set of uses is then the semantic domain or “meaning” of the word. The English word “awful,” for example, can mean “very bad, extremely shocking, horrific, very unwell or troubled or, in archaic contexts: inspiring reverential awe” (OED). Each of these are different possibilities, and your goal as a hearer or reader is to pick the one that makes the most sense. If I say “they hit you in the face? That’s awful!” then the word awful probably means “very bad” or maybe “extremely shocking” (if, for example, we both know the person in question is not particularly violent). If I say “I’m feeling awful today” then I mean “unwell” or “troubled,” and you would decide between those two based on whether or not I was sneezing constantly or crying perpetually. Usage determines meaning, and you intuitively decide between variant uses on the basis of the context in which the word is used.
Biblical Words are Ordinary Words
What about Biblical words? Are they different? In short: no. One of the basic principles of Biblical interpretation is that Biblical words are ordinary words. They are not special. They don’t break the usual rules of how words are meaningful. That’s counterintuitive in our evangelical climate. We think the Greek and Hebrew words that occur in the bible are somehow “fuller” and more important than the “ordinary” words we use to talk about coffee shops, TV shows, or what happened today at work. After all, the Bible is the word of God (and yes, that’s true), and if that is the case doesn’t that mean that Biblical words are better, fuller, and more significant than ordinary words?
It is true that the Bible does extra-ordinary things. Awesome things! Supernatural things! The Bible reveals the unknowable God. The Bible never errs and never tells a falsehood. The Bible is simultaneously historical and timeless. The Bible does a lot of things that we, as mere humans, cannot do, and in that sense it is certainly special and even unique. It is, in fact, the innerant and infallible revelation of the Holy God.
And yet the remarkable thing is that the Bible does all this through the ordinary human language. Biblical Revelation is extraordinary, but the language it uses to convey these extraordinary things is, in fact, ordinary. Thus the word “logos” in Greek doesn’t mean something more than “word.” The word is used by John to talk about the revelation of God through the God-Man Jesus, but it doesn’t thereby cease to mean “word.” It’s being put to higher use, perhaps, but it doesn’t mean anything different than it meant for Herodotus or Euripedes. It doesn’t stop being an ordinary word, even if it is in fact metaphorically used to refer to an extraordinary person.
Determining what that Biblical Word Means
So what does that mean for Biblical interpretation? It means that in the Bible, just like in “ordinary” communication, the meaning of a word is determined by how people use it. Biblical words do not have magical properties. They are not supra-human. Their use is super-intended by God, but they are still being used in the ordinary ways that humans use words. That’s why the Scriptures are “perspicuous.” That’s why the meaning becomes clear “through a due use of ordinary means” (WCF 1:7).
So how do you figure out what a Biblical word means? Easy! In fact, the whole point of this entire article is that determining the meaning of a Greek and Hebrew word is actually fairly straightforward. How can that be, you ask? If I have to determine how most people 2000+ years ago used a word in order to determine its range of meaning, how could that possibly be easy? Doesn’t that require me to immerse myself in a depth and breadth of foreign and ancient literature, much of which I have little to no access to, and which is itself far more extensive than any one person can possibly read in their lifetime? Yep, it does. But guess what, it’s still easy. Why? Because it’s already done for you. This is what a Lexicon is. A Greek or Hebrew lexicon is a catalog of word usage by a particular community in a particular time and place.
So how do you figure out what a word means? Drop the word studies, the linguistic magic acts, the etymological rigmarole, and just look it up in a decent lexicon. Grab BDAG, HALOT, BDB, or some other well-established lexicon, look up your word, sift through the variety of ways it is used, and pick the definition (or “gloss”) that best fits the immediate context. Most of the time, the best thing to do is trust the dictionary. And hope it gets updated!