Words Don’t Always Mean What We Think They Mean

Pop culture wields amazing power. Words often take on new meanings due to popular use, and their meanings evolve over generations to match the current mindset of the people. We think we know what we’re saying, but do we really?

It’s important to call attention to assumptions, though, because we build entire thought processes and philosophies upon the supposed meanings of words. Your entire life is shaped by the decisions you make based on what you believe words to mean.

Example 1: “Sustainable”

“Sustainable” building materials aren’t necessarily eco-friendly. They can be very toxic to the soil, plants, and wildlife in surrounding areas. They are called sustainable or eco-friendly because they re-use formerly used materials instead of newly created materials. We call it sustainable because we don’t “waste” materials and toss them into a landfill. But if the recycled materials are toxic, they’re still bad for your local environment when they off-gas and leech toxins into the soil.

Example 2: “Well-Fed”

It’s very possible for a person to be well-fed and yet simultaneously malnourished. The body needs essential fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals that aren’t found in processed foods. If you eat to your heart’s content but lack the majority of essential fat soluble vitamins and minerals, your body can develop autoimmune disorders and a host of other maladies (see skin problems, sleep disorders, chronic heartburn, moodiness, chronic infections, weak immune system, and so on).

Example 3: “Human Rights”

This one gets a little tricky, so I won’t belabor it very long. When I recently disagreed with Bernie Sanders’ tweet, I saw a wide range of responses from Sanders supporters. The most prevalent commonality was the use of the term “human rights”. I assume it’s a message that Bernie has been speaking on ever since he ran for President.

Bernie Sanders Tweet

I listed this third and controversial phrase because it exemplifies the evolution of meaning that can take place over time. The US Constitution states that we citizens have the right to life (shouldn’t be murdered), liberty (shouldn’t be enslaved), and the pursuit of happiness (to pursue the lifestyle we think will make us happy).

Franklin D. Roosevelt took human rights a few steps further after WWII. “His remedy was to declare an ‘economic bill of rights’ to guarantee eight specific rights”:

  • Employment
  • Food
  • Clothing
  • Leisure with enough income to support them
  • Farmers’ rights to a fair income
  • Freedom from unfair competition and monopolies
  • Housing
  • Medical care
  • Social security
  • Education

(source)

I don’t agree that this list represents rights which every human, or at least every American, should expect to receive. As I mentioned in my twitter response, health care wasn’t guaranteed for hundreds of years in North America, so you’ll have to go to greater lengths to convince me and many others that it’s suddenly become a “human right”.

I have many wonderful friends who believe that healthcare is a human right. I love and honor them despite our differences of opinion. Whichever side of the coin you’re on, we can at least acknowledge that these words have “obvious” meanings to us all, and those meanings seldom agree.

Example 4: Freedom

Though often cited as the need to be free from control, freedom is much more than just a rallying cry for those who seek to escape or overthrow oppression. As a human being, you are free to make choices. No one can take that freedom from you. As an American citizen, you are free to pursue happiness as you see fit, so long as you do not violate other laws of the land, such as stealing, killing, vandalism, libel, or insider trading.

We are not only free “from” bad things, but also free “to” do good things. It’s an important distinction and responsibility. It’s common for children and teenagers to desire freedom from house rules and self-discipline. But freedom to pursue a particular course of study and to chart a course for the rest of your life is a far more positive aspect of freedom.

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