The Meaning of Words

“The meaning of words should be carefully analyzed, and one should diligently ascertain the precise force of each and every term, both in itself and in the given context, so that one may dispel the haze of sophistries that would otherwise obscure the truth.  The considerations prompting the speaker may be surmised from the occasion, the kind of person he is, and the sort of listeners he has, as well as from the place, the time, and various other pertinent circumstances that must be taken into account by one who seriously seeks the truth.” John of Salisbury, The Metalogicon I.19., trans. Daniel D. McGarry (Philadelphia 2009), pp. 57-58.

While I was recently examining John of Salisbury’s definitions of military terms in a colleague’s work*, I found this quote from John’s famous text on the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric).  In this section on grammar, the twelfth-century theologian and philosopher, explained the importance of the meaning of words and how we use them.  Notice John of Salisbury’s focus in this quote: Truth.  Words have meanings and how a speaker or writer uses those words should bring clarity not confusion.

*John D. Hosler, John of Salisbury: Military Authority of the Twelfth-century Renaissance (Leiden 2013), p. 11.

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