Not Enough?

I constantly see instances of the rhetorical gesture wherein an author or preacher claims that a whole page-worth of intense connotation, allusion, ramification, implication, history, and philosophical baggage are all implied by a single word. “It’s all in there,” they’ll say, or “With one word, he calls to mind the whole….”
 
I have a hard time believing that such writers and preachers actually believe what they’re saying. I suspect that they draw all these correlations, think they’re cool and provocative, think that the author whose work they’re discussing was terribly smart to have chosen a word that might trigger all these associations, and think that so neat an array of correlations must somehow be decisively attributed to the word itself — rather than to the interpreter, or to the (antecedent) writer’s imagination of what subsequent readers might think.
 
Is it truly so very weak to say, “Theses allusions, connotations, and so on fit such-and-such a context”? Or, “This word resonates with these other discourses”? Or, “Related words appear in these comparable circumstances”? Why do commentators feel obliged to ascribe intrinsic characteristics to words, when broader experience suggests (to me) that people rarely use words with any but a casual, conventional sense of what they’re doing?
 
It’s entirely possible for us to make warranted inferences about ways that a text coheres with other texts, contexts, usages, discourses, and so on, without making the (false) claim that “all of that” is somehow packed into one word. No, no, no, it isn’t.

3 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Though it is certainly true that words have no intrinsic characteristics, and that semantic value is very strongly context-driven, is it not sometimes the case that authors really do make very conscious, intentional choices with regard to specific words? I can’t think of the reference right now, somewhere in IFG, but I think Halladay talks about “lexically dense” discourse. Modern legal language, or some brands of theological language might fit the bill here. A word like “substance” or “essence” when found in theological discourse holds more semantic weight than words generally do. Of course context remains absolutely vital, and if one is to err it must be on the side of context, but sometimes I wonder (just a little bit mind you) if we haven’t become so afraid of Barr’s fallacy that we are afraid to allow some semantically dense lexemes to have their say.

    But only very rarely. Almost never. Really, really, very much almost never. Please continue to add qualifications and caveats as needed.

  2. Thanks, Colin; I greatly appreciate your visits here. Yes, there are circumstances in which authors “make very conscious, intentional choices with regard to specific words” — although (a) I tend to doubt that they have everything in mind that the commentators claim, and (b) those are fewer occasions than the thick-on-the-ground expositors would have me believe. If there’s reason to think that someone was choosing a word deliberately to evoke other contexts and resonances, the person making that claim owes an account of what those reasons are.
     
    I think I’d still respond that the phenomenon of “lexical density” has more to do with contexts than lexemes. Within the field of conventions that govern legal opinions and arguments, certain words (conventionally) play very particular roles; but that’s not a feature of the word itself, as can be illustrated by the number of times we see amateurs try to make a point of law, only to be corrected by insiders who know that such-and-such is a legal term of art, without its usual domain of reference. Likewise theology; if we split a dime for every treatise on Trinitarian theology that devotes ten pages to what “person” means, we’d each be able to finance a healthy unpaid leave. But it’s not that there’s a mystical semantic internality to “person,” only that we take part in a peculiar discourse that vests tremendous importance in how the term “person” is applied to God.

  3. Yes, I fully agree on all points. I particularly agree on the point about commentators’ abuse of the so-called “lexical fallacy.” And yes, lexical density is a phenomenon that relies on broader kinds of discourses or linguistic registers (you can see I like Halladay’s social-semiotic). Though I do wonder if we might be able to identify particular kinds of linguistic register within the biblical corpus. Such a project might make some use of the concept of lexical density, though of course it would have to proceed with extreme caution. Interesting stuff in any case.

    Oh, and I greatly appreciate that there is a here to visit :). It’s nice to interact with other scholars who have such eclectic interests.

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