“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” – Lewis Carroll, “Through the Looking Glass”
Why is this happening? What is real? Who should I trust? How did we get so confused? Have we lost our collective minds? I keep asking these and similar questions. We are mixed up. We don’t know up from down. We can’t figure out who is telling the truth and who is lying. We’re back on our heels and disoriented. We are overwhelmed with information, misinformation, and disinformation. We desperately are looking for that place of stability, where we can go about our work, raise our family, enjoy our freedoms, interact without fear, and look forward to the holidays.
Much of our confusion today comes from what linguists call “semantic overload.” This occurs when a word or phrase has more than one meaning and conveys something other than its ordinary meaning. In June, an article from a Liverpool, England newspaper featured this headline: “Liverpool mum and partner first transgender couple to ever have twins in UK history.” To clarify what happened, the author wrote: “The babies were conceived using their mum Adrianne’s sperm to fertilize donor eggs which were carried to full-term by their dad, Michael, during a grueling pregnancy.” Confused? It’s understandable. A woman identifying as a man (and dad) bears two children conceived by a man identifying as a woman (and mom). When all these words no longer convey their meaning, the intent is unclear and messy. It’s almost impossible to communicate reality.
To quote Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” The language surrounding COVID-19 is rich with overload. The “new normal” means mandated change. “Social distancing” means to be physically distanced, not antisocial. “Masking” used to indicate to put on a disguise. “Quarantine” used to mean isolating the sick, not the healthy. We’ve seen a similar overload in our political discourse. Much of what is called “unprecedented” has happened before. Riots are re-branded with qualifiers as “mostly peaceful protests.” Fraud is not debated but lacking “widespread” or “substantial” character. Witness testimony is called “baseless,” “unproven,” and “unsubstantiated” by those who have not examined or investigated their claims.
Language is a gift of God to be used according to His Word and will. In the beginning, God the Father created the heavens and earth and everything by speaking His Word. Words brought light out of the darkness. Words set the sun, moon, and stars in place. Words separated the dry land from the seas. God’s speaking continues to cause the seed to sprout, the flowers to bloom, and the trees to bud. God’s speaking knit you together in your mother’s womb, a wonderful creation. When and where God speaks, God acts. His Word does what it says.
That’s why the first temptation was to undermine God’s Word. Satan asks Eve, “Did God really say?” By speaking lies, the serpent deceived Eve and her husband, Adam. And he didn’t need those two to reject God’s Word entirely. No, they simply needed to add to the Word, distort it, conform it to their wants and desires. In this way, the Deceiver brings chaos, disorder, confusion. He doesn’t even lie. They will know “good and evil,” but that’s not good. Not so ironically, Satan tried the same tactic with Jesus in the wilderness, but this time is wholly unsuccessful. He misapplies God’s Word. Jesus, the Word made flesh, quickly rebukes him with the same Word.
That’s the power of words. Words can be used to clarify, speak, and illuminate the truth. But words can be used to muddle, silence, and hide facts, too. Are you still confused? Pay attention to the words. Are words being used to speak the truth or cover for lies? They’re powerful things, words. We can again restore that place of stability. Think critically about the words we hear. Challenge attempts to overload our understanding with word games.
And notice the objective of the words or phrases. Do the words bring chaos and disorder, hide the truth, and destroy life and livelihood? Rebuke these words. Because when the Deceiver speaks, he brings death, confusion, and falsehood, artificial/virtual/fake reality. Those who speak with this aim are demonic and destructive. Or do the words seek to bring order, reveal the truth, and give life and livelihood? Listen to these words. Because when God speaks, he brings life into being, puts things in order, and confesses the reality. Those who speak in this way are instruments of God for your good.