Last week, while preparing for my sermon, I learned something new. I was trying to figure out what it’s called when you say a word too many times and it starts to lose meaning. I’ve been told this is a common human experience—I had to make sure I wasn’t crazy. It is indeed a regularly happening phenomenon called “mental satiation.” I think those are fancy words for “overload.” The reason I was looking into this isn’t because I’m getting old and need a name for what’s going on with my brain. As someone who makes their living in a world of words, I’m always interested in what we do with them. How is it we use these amalgams of letters to make things known to one another? How do we communicate in spite of our best efforts to miscommunicate? One place where I see great effects of words and their meanings (or lack thereof) is when we use a word so frequently that it fails to mean something significant.
This isn’t the same as a word losing all meaning through sheer repetition. What I’m talking about is when a word becomes so commonplace that we aren’t really sure when the appropriate time to use it is. If you still have no idea what I’m talking about—let me ask you this: have you ever claimed that you love a particular type of food? Well, I hardly think there’s any definition of love that’s appropriately applied to what you’re putting in your stomach. To use the common classical “realms” of love: do you show loyalty to your dessert? Do you have unconditional regard or self-sacrifice for your steak? Or, as a five-year-old may taunt you—do you want to marry your sandwich? Of course not, but you see my point in this. We use the word “love” so often that it has lost some significance of meaning.
Love is pretty important in the grand scheme of things. Yet, we have the same effect on many other words we use. Consider some of the words that are often misused: awesome (does it really inspire awe), literally (just asking for trouble with this one), or best/worst (how many times in a week are we hearing about the new “best?”). Part of the problem is that we have fewer words to express ourselves. In the middle of the 20th century, the typical teenager had a vocabulary of 25,000 words. Today it’s less than 10,000. So, lack of choice causes us to use words that don’t actually fit the context. That’s not an excuse though. There are some spiritual ramifications to this problem, too. God is interested in our word choices.
Take, for example, the story where someone is chasing after Jesus and calls Him “good teacher” (Luke 18:18-19). How does Jesus respond? He questions the word choice, asking why it is that this man identifies Him as good. Now, Jesus was trying to make a point in this guy’s word choice. However, it shows that what words we choose are important because they are evaluative words. If we call something “good,” what are we saying about it? If we give something praise—what are we really communicating? If we continually speak in hyperbole—where everything is best/worst/funniest/hardest etc.—what words do we have left for things that are truly extraordinary? Not only all of this—but do we have any language that is reserved for God? Do we have any categories that are only for that which is truly sacred? The way we use words reveals something about what we believe and what’s in our hearts. Let’s ensure that we mean what we say and mean what we believe.