Semantics and the Language Barrier

“You’re just arguing semantics!”

One of the things that interested me early on in the ministry is the way in which language is used. Attempting to convey the meaning of biblical texts written thousands of years ago kind of stresses the importance of having a somewhat workable knowledge of language. I’m not even speaking of Hebrew or Greek here, but English. I am often amazed at how little people know about their native tongue.

Take for example a passage in the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible: “And God blessed them [man and woman], and God said to them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth and subdue it…” (Gen 1.28; italics added). The English word replenish seems to imply on the surface a “refilling” of the earth, as if the earth had already been previously filled with human life.

At this point the reader should ask, “What does the word replenish mean?” How was it originally defined when the KJV attempted to translate the Hebrew. The term means to fill or build to full supply. Even modern dictionaries that do not reflect the language of the period (Elizabethan style of English popular before the 17th century), define the term as such.[1] All of this is given to illustrate a key point, without a semantical consideration of the meaning of the term and how the word is used in the language spoken various misconceptions may occur. A great number of people would more than likely assume that replenish means to “fill again” due to the prefix “re” applied at the beginning of the word. They’d be wrong, though.

There was an occasion when I was meeting with a group of ministers where a discussion ensued over being a visionary type of leader. To support this dreamer mentality someone quoted Proverbs 29:14 “Where there is no vision, the people perish….” I pointed out that the word translated vision does not mean something that originates from the mind of man, but is drawn from the mind of God. That is to say the meaning of the word vision is equivalent to God’s Word. More modern translations help bring this point to bear. However, so does the context.

The second half of the verse is helpful in limiting the meaning of the word vision: “but he that keepth the law, happy is he” (Prov 29.18b). The phrase “keepth [keeps] the law” is an example of Hebrew parallelism, a poetic device common in the Old Testament. The contrast is drawn between those who have no knowledge of God’s Word and those who keep the law of God (i.e. God’s Word). The matter is life or death. People perish without the life-giving Word of God (cf. Hos 4.6).

This verse is not speaking about visionary type leadership as was being stated. When I pointed this out to my colleagues, I was met with the frustrated response: “You’re just arguing semantics!”

What experience has taught me, and what I continue to see in many of the social arguments carried out in our time is that the phrase “You’re just arguing semantics!” is stated or implied very strongly by an opponent to shut you up. It doesn’t matter what the subject is, people would rather assume the meaning of a term or phrase, than to be corrected regarding the actual meaning. The attitude behind the objection is similar to…

  • a person calling you a racist or an uncle Tom because you disagree with their ideology.
  • someone labeling you a homophobe[2] just because you do not accept a redefining of marriage as something other than only between a man and a woman.
  • Accusing you of hate speech because you say that there are only two genders (male and female) and these are identifiable at birth.
  • Claiming you are guilty of white male privilege due to your pro-life stance towards abortion of any kind.

I may not agree with this position from those who are not Christian, but at least I can understand it to some degree. They have a notable axe to grind. Unfortunately, I see this same attitude and poor argumentation (bordering on laziness) in many Christian circles as well. Over the next few posts my goal is to address some of these common failures from a Christian perspective, and in so doing show where some erroneous conclusions drawn are a direct result of failing to do an accurate study of the meaning of the terms or phrases being used.

Every argument is an argument over semantics. The goal of language expression is to convey an idea or teaching accurately. When I hear the claim, “You’re just arguing semantics!” my reply is short, “Yes, isn’t that the point?” Language is important, the meaning of words (and yes even their history) is important, and if we hope to communicate the truth accurately then we should take great care in understanding our words and the words of others.

If we say we do not care about semantics, then we should reduce our speaking to the babbling of little babies…less harm would come from it.


[1] “replenish” s.v., Merriam-Webster Dictionary and Thesaurus. 2008 CD-ROM.

[2] Speaking of semantics one of my children pointed out that “phobia” means fear, to be afraid of something. And yet, when people normally use the term “homophobia” they are conveying the idea of hatred. They label you a homophobe because you have a disagreement with the rightness of wrongness of the act of homosexuality in order to “shut you up;” if not personally, at least from a public hearing.