Word usage can convey confusion as well as clarity. Paying attention to how words are used is important to understanding.

A recent visit to Walden Pond reminded me of my surprise from a much earlier trip to Concord, Massachusetts. Everything I had envisioned about Henry David Thoreau’s building of a small getaway home there was out of focus.

Most surprising, I came upon what appeared by every measure I’d known to be a lake rather than a pond.

In my rather rural Georgia upbringing, a pond was a small body of water — usually set in a field — that was used as a little fishing and watering hole.

Some seek to define ponds as small, enclosed and no more than 20 feet deep, while lakes are considered larger, deeper and more open.

However, the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services notes more honestly: “From a naming convention, there is no precise difference between a lake and pond.”

That reality surfaced for me decades ago when Atlanta’s ever-expanding suburbs extended into once rural areas. Ponds were reimagined as lakes.

Constructing big houses on small lots on former farmland led developers to rename the pond and its surrounding subdivision in grander terms.

Catfish, bass and bream soon found themselves living among the white-collar commuters of Lake Whatever Estates.

Other words shift or lose meanings as well.

A red sign with the word "clearance" in white lettering.

(Photo: John D. Pierce)

A big box store’s bright “clearance” sign once drew me to a nicely designed door that had been discounted by 5%. Fifty percent, I’d suggest, is the bare minimum for such a designation.

In recent years, it has become popular for small, private colleges to start calling themselves universities. It’s as if being a college is somehow inferior.

However, offering a few graduate degrees or changing departments into schools to justify becoming a university makes a still-small institution of learning appear rather insecure.

I went to a college. Our daughters went to a university. I can tell the difference.

Menu is another word that can be confusing. It is now being used for the listing of a website’s various “pages” (not to be confused with pages in a book or magazine).

So, a restaurant’s website requires going to the “menu” in order to get to the “menu” (you know, the listing of available food and drinks that has long been called a menu).

These are more trivial matters with less significant misunderstandings than the use or misuse of some other important terms.

“Pro-life” is one of those terms that is used in ways that are far less than life affirming in the larger sense.

Those who seek a government by the few, for the few — using violence as necessary to achieve their goals — like to describe themselves, and only themselves, as “patriots.”

That certainly doesn’t fit the definition of a true patriot as seen not far away from Walden Pond at Concord and Lexington.

Likewise, “religious liberty” is being defiled and misrepresented today as if it provides a license to use one’s religious convictions to impose personal beliefs on others — including acts of discrimination.

These are just some of the words that have been damaged by intent and ignorance in recent years. We need to keep our eyes open to their use and abuse.

Of great concern are the ways the Christian faith gets redefined by the manipulation, mangling and misuse of terms.

There’s room for many varieties of Christian expressions. But they should have something of note to do with what Jesus showed and said marked the faithfulness of his followers.

Often, I reference how the term “worldview” has been captured to redefine Christianity apart from following Jesus.

It no longer describes how one views the world, but rather this concept of “worldview” is prescriptive in dictating what one must believe (according to an arbitrary, human source) in order to be authentically and verifiably “Christian.”

Attaching the false descriptors of “biblical” or “Christian” to worldview gives license to reshape the faith into a preferred doctrinal/political ideology often at odds with the life and teachings of Jesus.

Therefore, even the term “Christian” — with a long history of abuse — loses its connection to the one for whom it was named.

Words matter. They need warning signs about how they are defined, displayed and often defiled.

A dictionary or thesaurus can come in handy when seeking to understand the meaning and use of words. But discernment is also needed.

The current widespread misuse of language to confuse, redirect and mislead people is enough to fill a lake — or at least a pond.

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