When I was in the 8th grade, I got to go on a week long class trip to Washington DC. On one of the stops, we got to see the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. We were told to meet back at a certain spot at a certain time to get on the bus back the hotel. Introvert that I am, I spent a lot of time wandering around by myself and I had a ball. But when I went to the designated spot at the designated time, no one was there – no friends, no teachers, no bus. I quickly realized that I had heard the time wrong and that the bus had left without me.
I tried not to panic. I knew we were staying at the Days Inn and so I figured I’d just ask someone for the phone number, get in touch with one of the teachers, and they’d send someone out to get me.
Being from Honolulu where we don’t have Days Inns, I thought that there would be just one Inn in the DC area, and so I figured if I asked someone for their number, I’d get a simple, straightforward answer. Unfortunately, it wasn’t so simple. When I asked a customer service person for the number of the DC Days Inn, they asked, “which one?” And that’s when I learned that there were something like eight or nine Days Inn in the area.
And that’s when I started to panic.
I share that story because it illustrates something about how language works. Sometimes we think a particular word or phrase (“Days Inn in DC”) points to just one thing when in fact, it points to many things. In fact, through the course of this series, I’m going to argue that language always works this way because:
Language, it turns out, is fuzzy.
Sometimes the fuzziness of language isn’t a problem.
For example, let’s say you get a text message from your partner or roommate that reads “on your way home, can you stop by the store and pick up a dozen eggs?” you know it doesn’t matter which store you go to or what particular brand of eggs you pick up, as long as you get home with a dozen eggs.
Sometimes, the fuzziness of language can be a HUGE problem.
When your mechanic is replacing the brake pads on your car, you’d better hope that they’re not just phoning their supplier and saying, “on your way here, can you stop by the warehouse and pick up a few brake pads?” because, unlike eggs, it matters a great deal what kind of brake pads they get.
But even here, there’s wiggle room between what the mechanic asks for and what they can get. There are probably a number of different manufacturers who supply that part and each manufacturer might offer different performance/price options. Thus, choices still need to be made – out of the available options, which is the one that best fits the customer’s needs/budget?
This reveals something profound about language and words and how we use them:
Words have different meanings and thus are inherently in need of interpretation.
Now remember the panic I felt when I learned that there were a number of Days Inns in the DC area? I felt that because I expected a simple answer (one Days Inn) but received a complex one instead (many Inns). And then I felt lost and alone in a huge, unfamiliar world. And so I panicked.
I see that same sort of panic and anxiety in the evangelical church today (especially on the fundamentalist end) and I think a lot of it is rooted in the same sort of Days Inn disconnect that I felt in DC.
And I’ll have a lot more to say about that in my next post.