Words

It was her first college class.  Excitement for learning curved her lips into a smile. The professor strode through the classroom door; her heart skipped a beat.  Poised with pen over paper the young undergraduate was anxious to record her first class session.  “Words have no meaning,” he began, continuing, “This phrase is the basis for our course.”  The young woman was dumbstruck.  Meaningless words cut cross-grain against everything she knew.  “Words have to have meaning,” she thought, “Otherwise, why I am listening to you?” The professor continued his opening lecture, demanding that interpretation of words was up to the individual.  He built his case, line upon line.  But the new college student knew he was building his case in mid-air.  As she dutifully recorded his key ideas, she also believed she had to confront the premise of his argument.  But how?

Malcom Muggeridge, a 20th century English journalist, gave this warning, “Polluted air makes us suffocate, polluted water and food make us sick, but polluted words deliver us over to the worst of all fates: to be imprisoned by fantasy.  There is hope that the polluted air and water and food may sometimes be purified, but once words are polluted they are lost forever.”[1] Muggeridge knew words matter.  Words are first shaped by our thinking.[2] Next, words shape the way we think.[3] Words are then necessary to interpret what we see.[4] Words finally express our interpretation of the world.[5] Words, ultimately, are pregnant with meaning.

Everyone in the class seemed unaffected by the professorial pronouncement that words have no meaning but her.  She knew she should she confront the professor, but how?  And then it hit her.  He acknowledged her raised hand and the young woman began, “Sir, you say that words have no meaning, is that correct?”  “You listen well,” he smiled.  “If you are correct,” her question dripped with the perspiration she felt, “then you wouldn’t mind putting your belief to the test, would you?”  Anxious to prove his thesis the teacher nodded in approval.  “Perhaps, then,” the young woman’s voice shook with emotion, “You, me, and the class could take a field trip to a busy downtown intersection here in Chicago.  There you could prove your belief that words have no meaning by shouting the “N” word at the top of your lungs.”  For a moment, time stood still.  A hush fell across the class.  The professor looked horrified.  The young woman who asked the question feared for her academic life.  Then, in a moment of intellectual honesty, the professor relented, saying, “Let me clarify what I mean, by my words.”  Right now you are listening to my words on radio.  You may simply pass these syllables off as my opinion.  But then, you still must ask yourself, do my words matter.  For Moody Radio, this is Dr. Mark Eckel, personally seeking truth wherever it’s found.

This story is based on Chelsea’s experience (Mark’s daughter) in college.  Mark loves words but plays carefully with them in the sandbox of life.  Mark is invited to teach in multiple sandboxes.


[1] Malcolm Muggeridge. Time and Eternity. Quoted in First Things January 2011, p 71.

[2] What we believe drives our understanding.

[3] Benjamin Lee Whorf first made this hypothesis about language.

[4] Bruce K. Waltke. 2007. An Old Testament Theology. (Eerdmans): 63.

[5] Some would have us believe that Genesis is simply one nation’s construction of reality based on language.  “Signification” believes the sign bears relation to what it signifies.  “You can believe in God even if He doesn’t exist.”  Yet, the key to understanding Genesis is that the word emanates from the God who speaks.  We do not intuit interpretation.  God gives His interpretation by His authority.  God’s word is reliable whether we believe it or not.

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3 comments

  1. Words only have meaning subjectively.
    Mark, no one read this article would any of these words have a meaning except you?
    Or would you still write this article if you were the last person on earth?
    If your answer is yes then your truth is subjective.

    1. Hi Davitor. I suspect that the “subjectivity” of words would have met a very real “objectivity” of meaning were the event I described actually to have taken place.

  2. Pardon my second sentence I meant to write…
    Mark, If no one would read this article would any of these words have a meaning except to you?

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