The late Dr. Robert Lyons, my New Testament Greek professor, often wore a Lincoln green T-shirt with “C I E” printed in large, white letters on the front. If asked what it meant, Bob would say, “Context Is EVERYTHING!”
According to Bob, it doesn’t matter what the dictionary says the meaning of a word is. What matters is how it is used in the passage you are studying.
For example, what does the word “with” mean in this sentence:
Schmidt fought with the Germans in WWII.
It could mean that Schmidt fought along side the Germans.
It could also mean that Schmidt fought against the Germans.
If Schmidt was a German soldier, then it clearly means along side.
However, if Schmidt was an American soldier, it means against.
Without knowing more about Schmidt, there is no way to know which it is. For as Bob used to say, “Context is EVERYTHING!” Therefore, the absolute BEST way to determine the meaning of an unfamiliar word is to examine the context in which it is used.
You do this by reading what comes before and after it in the passage, and then making your best guess as to the meaning. So, since you can often determine meaning by context and your dictionary isn’t really a reliable guide anyway, as I said last time, you might as well sit on your dictionary.
Rather than reaching for it, the next time you encounter an unfamiliar word, try this:
- Ask yourself if it is really necessary to know the meaning of this particular word to understand the meaning of what you are reading. Believe it or not, you don’t need to know the meaning of every single word to understand an author’s point. If the word isn’t important to the meaning, ignore it and move on.
- If the word is important, put a light check mark next to it and continue reading. Very often you will be able to guess its meaning before you reach the end of the passage.
- If you can’t guess the meaning of the word by the time you reach the end of the passage, go back and re-read the passage, paying especially close attention to what comes immediately before and after it.
- If you still can’t guess the meaning of the word and it REALLY is important to understanding the passage, stand up, take your dictionary off the chair — you are sitting on it, aren’t you? — and look the word up.
- Once you know the meaning of the word, put your dictionary back on the chair and sit on it again.
And remember “Context Is EVERYTHING!”