You’ve been there, I know you have: Person A is arguing one point, and person B is arguing another. After twenty minutes of rehashing the same stuff, over and over again, you realize the combatant’s positions are not actually that far apart. You wait for a lull in the conversation, then offer your generous wisdom:
What you didn’t realize is, I was listening in to this conversation too—standing just a little further back than you. And when you said, “Just semantics,” I had myself a chuckle at your expense. Do you know what the definition of semantics is?
“The meaning of a word, phrase, sentence, or text.”
So when you roll your eyes at two people in heated discussion and lob out, “It’s just semantics,” what you’re actually saying is, “Oh, come on. Let’s spend time on something that matters. Quibbling over meaning is pointless.”
Meaning is pointless? I don’t think so. Now, I know there are times when people really are talking in circles and arguing each other’s point but too proud to admit they’ve just come to an agreement. Or close enough. But meaning isn’t pointless. Meaning IS the point, isn’t it?
What is truth without meaning?
What are words without meaning?
Can we converse if we don’t understand what the other person means?
Semantics matter. Subtle nuances change meaning in powerful ways. When former Soviet Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev declared, “We will bury you!” at a Polish Embassy while addressing a group of Western Diplomats, he understandably caused quite a stir and some in the West sounded the alarm. Many understood his comment as a military threat, when in fact he was speaking of economics.
Imagine the US president overhearing his senior staff debating the meaning of this statement and uttering, “C’mon, boys. It’s just semantics.” Those semantics just about started a war.
Imagine listening to a Mormon debating Bible passages relating to the deity of Christ with a Christian friend of yours. Now imagine yourself saying, “Oh, relax. It’s just semantics.” No, it’s not just semantics. Those semantics are critical.
Recall Bill Clinton’s famous weedy line, “I didn’t inhale,” and then try to wave it off by saying, “Give the guy a break. It’s just semantics.” No, he’s trying to get himself off the hook by attempting to change your perception of what his moral lapse meant—and that, folks, is the point.
Imagine your spouse confessing to an affair that was really more of a connection than anything where they shared some personal stuff, but nothing “really” happened. Getting to the bottom of this isn’t “just” semantics. It’s of vital importance.