In yesterday’s post I questioned whether words, sentences, ideas, teachings can simply be transferred from one context to another, if, in fact, it is precisely the context that is the determining factor for what the words mean. Here I’ll try to illustrate that “if.” My argument here is that words do not have some kind of inherent meaning but mean what they do depending on their social, historical, cultural, and literary context.

I think this can be illustrated just on the level of words themselves, in fact, of any word itself. I’ll illustrate with the example that I give to my undergraduate students at Chapel Hill. Take the word “dude.” Like all words, you might think that this word simply *means* something (it must mean *some* thing! No?), even if the meaning gets adopted in different contexts. Right?

Well, I’m not so sure it’s right. Dude in its early usage referred to a dandy – that is a city dweller who was cultured and dressed to the nines and went to the opera, and so on. That was a dude. Eventually the word came to refer to a man who was from the city, as opposed to one from the country, and who, as a result, had a city-person’s views, assumptions, lifestyle, culture, etc. And so country folk started having “dude ranches” where dudes – that is, city guys not used to country life – could come and learn how to ride horses and lasso cattle and chew straw and do whatever else country people did.

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