On the Proper Use of Terms

I was reading a thread on a Catholic forum about how the various people on the forum came to the Catholic Church. One lady objected to the use of the term “convert” as a general term for people entering the Catholic Church. In her view, only those who have never been baptized before are truly “converts”; those who were baptized in another Christian denomination are “entering full communion,” but are not converts. In other words, you can’t convert from Christianity to Catholicism because Catholics are Christians.

Now, I take her point—and I must emphasize that she was not at all strident about it. She just thinks that it’s a good distinction to keep in mind, and I agree, it is. The trouble is, the word “convert” has multiple meanings in the religious context, and one of the most common ones is “a person who entered the Catholic Church as an adult”, without regard to the tradition from which they came. Any attempts by a single person to redefine the word to suit themselves are going to lead only to frustration.

I saw a similar phenomenon on a blog I stumbled across a few weeks ago. The blogger was distressed because Pope Francis had referred to “gays”. In her view, the word “gay” means not only homosexual preferences, but also participation in a sinful lifestyle. The proper word for a Catholic to use when speaking of the former but not the latter, according to her, is “same-sex attracted”, and somehow by using the word “gay” in the way he did the Pope had stepped over some kind of line. (I’m not at all sure I completely understood her reasoning.)

When you’re writing an essay or an article or a blog post or a book, you’re naturally free to use terms however you like, provided that you’re careful to define your terms. In philosophy this is particularly common, and particularly necessary, because so many of the terms are heavily overloaded. (Note to atheists: when St. Thomas Aquinas proves the existence of God from motion, the word “motion” doesn’t mean what you think it does.)

And the same applies to commenting on forums or in comment threads: if you want to be understand, and you use a fuzzy word, you need to make it clear what you mean.

But to insist that a word in colloquial use must always have your preferred idiosyncratic meaning, and to stand athwart the world and cry “Stop!” when others use it in the normal colloquial way, is simply a waste a time.

(Oh, and a note to all of the entomologists out there: spiders are bugs. So are bees, scorpions, silverfish, millipedes, centipedes, and anything else creepy-crawly with more than four legs. Deal with it.)

  • By Julie D., August 29, 2013 @ 8:20 am

    As Chris (Yul Brynner) says in The Magnificent Seven: “Harry, please don’t understand me so fast.”

  • By Will Duquette, August 29, 2013 @ 3:41 pm

    I like that. (I’m one of the probably few people in America who hasn’t seen The Magnificent Seven but *has* seen The Seven Samurai.)

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