Making Your Point by Changing the Meaning of Words

It is entirely normal for word usage to change over time as a language and culture evolves. This is one reason that most people today no longer use the older English translations of the Bible; they are written in a language nobody speaks in the 21st century. I mentioned in a post a few years ago that once upon a time I had a bunch of people in a Sunday School class who objected to the NIV being used in class, preferring instead the King James. I offered to teach the entire class from then on in King James English and we took a vote: King James English won the day, and the following week, I spoke only in 1611 English.

The people couldn’t follow very much, quickly became frustrated, and the point was made. A new vote was taken, and we returned to language they understood the next week.

Yes indeed, language can change over time… It is a natural progression. Yet it can also change for other reasons, reasons that are not so natural. This happens when language is changed for political reasons as a way to change social and cultural attitudes and norms, without running into opposition to what might have been considered radical change at some point. In our time, we have a name for this kind of change; we call it “political correctness”. Ever since this trend began back in the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s, I have been amazed that nobody seems to have noticed the word “correctness” in political correctness; where is the outcry at having an opinion forced upon us; aren’t we all entitled to have our own political opinions?

No, we are not, for there are some who reserve the right to determine which political opinions are “correct”, and that is hard to deny when that very word is in the title: Words mean things!

Political correctness requires that the meaning of certain words must change to fit the political narrative, and two such words are the words “tolerance” and “intolerance”. Here are the definitions of these words from the 1828 edition of Webster’s Dictionary:

The power or capacity of enduring; or the act of enduring

Here is the latest online definition from Merriam-Webster:

willingness to accept feelings, habits, or beliefs that are different from your own

Did you catch the distinction between “endure” and “accept”? For me, this distinction becomes clearer when we look at the differences in the word “intolerance”, first the 1828 definition:

Want of toleration; the not enduring at all or not suffering to exist without persecution; as the intolerance of a prince or a church towards a religious sect.

Now the modern definition:

a reluctance to grant rights to other people

When I was a kid in school a half century ago, I was taught the meaning of these two words, I was taught to be tolerant of views that differ from my own, which required that I be respectful of others even when we disagree on something, or in the language of the school yard, you don’t get to beat them up if they are different than you… but you don’t have to agree either. Is that how the politically correct crowd understands this?

Hardly, for they are the most intolerant of all, but then why should that come as news to anyone; they are the ones who determine which opinions are “correct” and which are “incorrect”. The result of this “correctness” is a psychological phenomenon called “groupthink”. Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome. We can see the results of this all around us.

Believe it or not, I have actually heard Christians say that we must be politically correct; I’ve even heard this said in Sunday worship. Can anyone explain to me why Christians would submit to political correctness? If so, please leave a comment.

I guess this surprises me because it is NOT politically correct to even BE a Christian; signing onto political correctness strikes me as a sort of suicide pact.

I know that some might respond to this by calling me a “racist sexists homophobic pig”, for such is the normal intolerance of those who buy into this groupthink… so by all means, call me names in a comment (no four letter words that begin with “f” please).

For the rest of us who are followers of Jesus Christ, we know the way of love, and we will reply with respect and kindness even though we might disagree, while reserving our right to hold on to our beliefs… just as Jesus would do.

Anybody want to discuss the repercussions of allowing the meaning of the word “gender” to be changed? How about the expressions “social justice” and “economic justice”? You see dear reader, many words and expressions have had their meanings changed over the last 30 years or so, and as a result, we are being torn apart as a Nation, and we aren’t the only ones.

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About Don Merritt

A long time teacher and writer, Don hopes to share his varied life's experiences in a different way with a Christian perspective.
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40 Responses to Making Your Point by Changing the Meaning of Words

  1. Two comments on this, first the easier:

    You refer to the changing of words, isn’t it odd how -phobic has changed? When I was in school -phobic meant fear, something you were afraid of. Now it means something you don’t like.

    Onto the second comment, PC (or tolerance). When I was a kid in Scouts (back in the dark ages) we had a custom at camp that units rotated saying grace before each meal. There was only one rule: be respectful of another’s customs. We had Jews, Catholics, Protestants, and other groups (yes, even silent atheists). We stood quietly as they gave thanks as they saw fit. These days Scouts must pick from a book of acceptable words that are picked so as to offend anyone. IMO, we knew more of tolerance/acceptance than they youth of today are taught.

  2. paulfg says:

    Reblogged this on Church Set Free and commented:
    I am taking the unusual step of re-blogging a post by Don Merritt (one of the movers and shakers behind Church Set Free) to Church Set Free.

    Because this post – whilst not quoting any verses or chapters or books – is a post that is inextricably linked with our communication of those very verses and chapter and books making up the bible (and any other text we might discuss). It is inextricably linked with “communication” – and church is about relationships – and relationships work with good communication (and suffer with bad communication). And then (heaven forbid!!) add our Father to that mix: how we talk to Him, and how we hear Him. This post is relevant to that (as well??).

    I haven’t seen a post like this which transfers so directly into the conversation about – and within – church. I am so glad Don wrote this.

    (as always – comments are disabled here, please pop across to Don’s place and join the conversation, thank you)

  3. dwmartens says:

    Along these lines I noted a Facebook post a couple of days ago to which one commentor said, “It’s ‘racial’ not ‘ethnic’…” Quite contrary to how I see it; but I don’t even try to be PC! Though, it is necessary to try to understand PC speech and action to figure out what is being conveyed, and to respond properly; Colossians 4:6.

  4. Let’s not talk about the day I got nailed for saying, “Showing their true colors.” I was finally able to show that I was talking about ships flags.

  5. Don, I agree with your post with a sidebar:
    To me word awareness began in the late ’80s and early ’90s simply as an exhortation to use respectful and dignified language to communication with and about people unlike ourselves (colored people, mentally retarded, etc…). I think it was useful at the onset, just as any movement is in order to affect change.

    We outgrew the term long ago; why it’s still used today is beyond me. However, you must admit there are still Christians who need reminders to act respectful toward others. This has nothing to do with political correctness; it has much to do with loving ones neighbor and loving and praying for ones enemies. I think we need to stop labeling (“politically correct crowd”) because it continues to espouse an “us” and “them” ideology. It continues to embrace seeing others through the eyes of our own worldview instead of a kingdom view.

    • Don Merritt says:

      I agree with you about certain Christian brothers and sisters who could use some work when it comes to demonstrating the love of Christ toward those with whom they disagree; you are quite right. I must respectfully disagree about the nature of political correctness, however. Teaching politeness and etiquette is not the role of politics, and it never has been. If you would take a more critical view of the political situation, you will see that everything that is “politically correct” advances one political point of view, to the exclusion of all others, and this is because political correctness is all about silencing opposition to that one point of view. Seriously Susan, look more closely and you’ll see it. I must also respectfully disagree with “us” and “them”; “worldview” and “Kingdom view”. Speaking truthfully, honestly and reasonably about those who would poison the well for the Gospel is very much a Kingdom view, and in this case was considerably more tactful that the language Jesus Himself used in Matt. 23 (seven times, no less).

      Of course, you’re free to disagree, and I thank you for your comments; they are a great addition to the conversation!

      • Don, I think you missed the part where I agree with you! 🙂

        I think now PC it is used as a hammer rather than a point of discussion. I repeat, think the changes it initially made were good and proper. HOWEVER, we must continue to discuss issues, not, as you stated some do, “advance one political point of view, to the exclusion of all others.” We all must listen more than we speak. If we don’t, we end up learning nothing and we never find common ground.

  6. JJS says:

    I’ve been following and enjoying your blog since November. This post flummoxes me a bit. My perception is more that groups which have been disenfranchised are increasingly in positions to respond to the more dominant culture. I think we could agree that sexism and racism are real things, but I’m not sure where you’re drawing the line between responding to discrimination, and enforcing political correctness.Could you provide some examples of what speech you feel has been silenced?

    And when you say “it is NOT politically correct to even BE a Christian” do you mean Christians should be a force for love and justice counter to the dominant culture and politics, or do you mean Christians in the USA are being oppressed? If the former, I agree. If the latter, I would suggest it’s easy to confuse being challenged with being silenced when you haven’t been challenged in a couple centuries. Peace.

    • Don Merritt says:

      Hi JJS, sorry to have flummoxed you 🙂

      I haven’t written about racism, sexism or discrimination in this post. Of course those are real things, ugly and unacceptable, but I wrote about changing the meaning of words, and then calling people names when they voice a different view. On your second question, I mean the former. Of course, being politically incorrect, Christians, particularly conservative Christians (which I am not), as a group are often treated accordingly.

      I hope that helps!

      • JJS says:

        It does help, thank you. The post touched on the intent of political correctness being to silence opinions, and I wasn’t sure which opinions you meant. When you were prepared to be called a racist/ misogynist/ homophobe, I seem to have mistakenly assumed that was the type of political correctness you were addressing. Thanks for the reply!

        • Don Merritt says:

          Ok, I see what you mean now. Those are just names I got used to being called for disagreeing with political opponents back in my days as a White House staffer. It never had to do with the issue in question; it’s just the standard diatribe. 🙂

  7. Rebeca Jones says:

    Most mornings I sit with my coffee and settle in to enjoy your always thought provoking posts. My husband often hears me say, “I love Don Merritt!” Though we’ve never met, know that I get so much from your words and you challenge me and, at times, affirm what I’m already thinking. This post is so well worded and affirms something my husband (an INTP) says a lot: ‘Words have meaning!’ Thank you for sharing your thoughts in such a logical and succinct way!

  8. Thanks for this. On the KJV/NIV thing, I get the old language problem, but think the NIV (and other versions like it) have the greater problem of using a poor Greek text with the additional problem of the translators making things up — not translating the meaning of the actual Greek words as closely as possible, but substituting an interpretive paraphrase instead — one that pushes the text toward particular interpretation that is not necessarily demanded by the Greek original. Again, I’ve also noticed that some modern translations of the Bible no longer indicate the parts where extra words are supplied by the translators to ‘help give the sense’ of passages. They used to show these extra words in italic type. No longer, apparently. Not showing which words are ‘extras’ runs the risk of people assuming that the word of God says things it does not.

    • Don Merritt says:

      There’s certainly no substitute for mastering Hebrew and Greek.

    • Matt Brumage says:

      I typically use the NASB updated edition (updated 1995). The Lockman Foundation has continued that practice in the update.

      Regarding your comment about newer translations using a ‘poorer Greek text’, I’m not sure to what you refer. Are you referring to the categorical system used by Kurt Aland that puts the Alexandrian texts ahead of Byzantine texts? Or are you referring to the basic quality of the manuscripts themselves, or what? I have gone round and round with people on this topic, and I continually find that deviation from Erasmus’ “Textus Recptus” really bothers some people. I was glad to see it go.

      But my contention in this issue has more to do with the problem of people not reading Scripture at all, forget engaging in critical thinking while doing so. People working 8-to-5 jobs tell themselves there’s no time, yet find plenty of time to watch some show on TV. I see modern translations more as a step to removing a barrier to them reading. It’s easier to read them, which means the likelihood of them reading goes up…slightly, very slightly, but I still like the help.

      Having said that, what I encourage those laypeople I teach to do is to read the passage we study in a couple of different translations (I give them categories, wooden to freer translations), and then to think through the differences, perhaps with a Strong’s concordance. Few take the time to do it. I don’t stop trying though.

      This would seem to me to be a much more practical approach to use with people than attaching myself to one translation or another. Translations (except for the Lockman Foundations New American Standard) are all created and owned by publishers. They share with each other through a license, but in the end, the publisher had them created to make a profit.

      So, I get your concern, but the sad truth is, there is value in pushing people to read (crawl) through a modern translation before pushing them to do the work of reading (run) a more literal translation. It’s work, and people are lazy. Let’s start them on the easy work out equipment before dropping them into the punishing work of free-weights.

      Now, if you’re dealing with students in an academic setting, then by all means drive them to the more literal translations, have them diagram the passages, and whenever possible begin from Greek and Hebrew manuscripts (the hearty ones can diagram those – I had to). I don’t deal with such people.

      • Hi Mart,
        My comment about Greek texts has to do with the fact that the vast majority (not just Erasmus’ few) of extant texts gives readings closer to the the text underlying the KJV and the NKJV than the ‘critical’ texts produced by the editors of the UBS Greek text, for example. The idea that the oldest extant texts are better than more recent copies (all we have are copies) is not necessarily helpful. The age of a copy is not the only factor worth considering. Sometimes, the argument that I read from scholars in this area seems to boil down to “the most problematic reading is to be preferred over those that makes sense”. The way the UBS privileges readings at John 9:4 and 1 Tim 3:16 comes to mind in this respect. The first is an example of one set of texts being accepted for the first half of the verse and then, in the second half, the previously rejected texts are accepted over the previously accepted texts. The UBS reading for 1 Tim 3:16 is utterly ungrammatical. Anyway, as to translations, they are very important for people who cannot, and do not have the opportunity, to learn the original languages. I believe they ought to represent the original words as closely as possible. To give an easy-to-read text that does not represent the original words accurately, or to give people a particular interpretation of a text rather than a translation doesn’t give people the right to think about possible interpretations for themselves. Eg the first four verses of Philippians 2 in the NIV (I’m not saying that the ‘interpretation’ given there is necessarily wrong, but it is not a translation of the words in the original). Kind regards.

        • Matt Brumage says:

          I get your point. I just don’t work with people who will do the work to “think about possible interpretations for themselves”. So, to push them a bit that direction, I suggest they read a variety of translations and try to process the differences.

          As to the majority text versus critical text, I disagree with your choice of the majority text and favor a more critical approach. Having said that, I follow a critical approach that leaves myself open to alternatives. I get as close as I think I can to an opinion of the original text said, but hold in tension the stark fact that our Master didn’t think it necessary to preserve those originals. So, how necessary are they, and how important is it to approach a lost original reading if the Inspiring Spirit of God didn’t feel it necessary to provide it? It serves to drive into more deeper study, familiarity, and devotion to Scripture. But it hold the potential for deeper walk with my Master as I submit to the Spirit’s use of the Scripture in my life. That’s far more important. Method of study, even textual study, is secondary. I’m pretty confident you and I can find common ground there.

    • gwennonr says:

      This is very well stated. Whereas I don’t always understand the KJV, and often meander into other, newer translations for clarity, when push comes to shove, the King James is my default version, and I trust it much more than the others. A book called “Which Version Is The Bible” sheds a lot of light on the translation observations you just made here, as well as explaining some of the older verb endings, which makes the King James immediately more approachable.

  9. What if these modern language “bibles” change doctrine? Will that be acceptable to you also?

    • Don Merritt says:

      I’m not quite sure where you’re coming from here, so sorry if my response doesn’t answer your question…

      Translations do not create doctrine (teaching). They are a convenient tool to help teach those who aren’t able to study the original language. Biblical doctrine comes from the original language, or is always double checked with the original text. We should not be making doctrinal decisions, and then going to Scripture to back them up (sadly, very common) but rather going to Scripture and then and only then arriving at conclusions relative to doctrine. To accomplish this, and there is no substitute for the original Hebrew and Greek texts.

      • It was something you mentioned in the beginning about modern translations and KJV. Modern English translations change doctrine to keep up with some teachings of the “Christian” cults. As to the last part if your reply; the originals are lost. I assume you’ve read my topics on the KJV?

        • Don Merritt says:

          I am not against the KJV; it’s the translation I learned first and used for many years. If you like, then by all means use it. I’ve said that here many times. I would respectfully remind you that the post you are commenting on isn’t even about Bible translations, it’s about the manipulation of language, and on that score, I must point out that any doctrine that is dependent upon a particular translation isn’t a very strongly supported doctrine, for doctrine is built upon the original language, not the way it’s translated. Is the original language text lost? No, it is not lost, in fact it is the most reliable of any ancient text that there is in the world by every standard of scholarship known to Man, and furthermore, I think we might also want to remember that it is the Word of God, and in my view, we can depend upon God to keep His Word, his revelation to Mankind of Himself pure through the centuries.

          Here, let’s look at it another way: Suppose a person doesn’t speak English. Say they only speak German or Japanese or Chinese. If they want to study the Word of God, must they learn 1611 archaic English to do so? Or must they read a translation of KJV into their own language?

          I don’t think so. Do you?

          • Are you talking about the text the modern English bibles are translated from or the TR? The translators of modern English bibles were satanists, Westcott and Hort.

            • Don Merritt says:

              I use buth TR and UBS for study and find that the differences are more than slightly exaggerated, although they do exist. Sadly, anything done by humans is subject to outside influence and personal prejudice, and that includes textual criticism as well as translating. Even so, I can teach the same doctrine from the KJV, NKJV, NASB, NIV or ESV without a problem simply because establishing and retaining the overall, book and passage context almost always makes the text clear if we aren’t married to our own prejudices.

            • O well as they say, each to his own. I’ll stick to my 400+ year tried and tested KJV. 😁👍
              Bless you brother!

          • Here in South Africa one language is Afrikaans, and I know you can find one marked “old” translation and “new” translation and I’ve checked, the “old” one and it matches the KJV. One example is 1 John 5:7. O, and I didn’t think you’re against the KJV. Will do more blogs on KJV soon….

      • O yes, and they don’t create doctrine but they twist or change the original doctrine to a certain extent.

  10. gwennonr says:

    This is another great post, Mr. Merritt. Thank you so much for sharing it.

    I especially appreciate what you have to say about words having meaning. Though we are all hard-wired to customize the language we use, we need to beware of corrupting meaning for our own purposes.

    Don’t know if you would be interested in it, but on my poetry blog,
    mybetterpoems.wordpress.com
    I posted a poem called “Tolerance 2.0” that also speaks to this subject. I like the words of my poem. But, compared to the beautiful pdf version I like to print and distribute, the words on the blog appear rather flat. If you or any of your your readers want a pdf file of the poem, you can email me at gwennonblogs@ymail.com and I will gladly send you that file.

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