It is agreed in linguistics, to various degrees, that words must always be interpreted in their own immediate context, and then subsequently brought over to their broader surrounding contexts, if we wish—at all— to properly discover and understand the real meaning of words in question. As Geoffrey Williams, lecturer of English and Corpus linguistics at l’Université de Bretagne-Sud, puts it in the introductory sentence of his online paper ‘From meaning to words and back: Corpus linguistics and specialised lexicography (2003, 91-106)’: ‘Words do not have meanings, meanings have words.’ The present readers are invited to take a look at Williams’ introductory paragraph that will substantiate this point. It communicates a very important and overlooked aspect of word meanings that lay-people are normally inattentive to.
By ‘immediate context’, it refers to the nearby and surrounding sentences in which the word appears. By ‘broader contexts’, it is meant to take into account the body of literature where the word(s) occur (e.g. book, article, etc.), the ancient or modern socio-cultural setting, and the audience to which it might have been addressed. For instance, if an individual discusses a reported demonic possession and uses the word ‘supernatural’ to describe such an incident, and then a correspondent disagrees that it should be referred as ‘supernatural’ but, instead, that it should be referred as ‘preternatural’—since it is reasoned that ‘supernatural’ gives unnecessary ‘super’ powers to extra-dimensional entities (i.e. demons and/or fallen angels) —because it more accurately conveys the metaphysical nature of the demonic event, then the correspondent would be committing a semantic fallacy. In the aforementioned scenario, the correspondent has not understood the flexibility of word meanings within specified contexts. In that case, ‘supernatural’ meant the same as ‘preternatural’: the demonic event in question is deemed beyond the natural physics of this world. This is so, since ‘paranormal’, ‘preternatural’, and ‘supernatural’ are all adjectival terminologies that could be used for a metaphysical event or object in question. In other words, these words could be interchanged as synonyms within specified contexts, although it may not be technicality appropriate to do so as best practice, since they are generally distinguished among the experts. But, one must realize that they could overlap, and the meaning of words penned by an author can only mean what the writer has meant, not what the writer ought to have written in one’s opinion. That is, to interpret what one reads or listens to must be descriptive rather than corrective. Corrective approaches should be undertaken only when one is writing or overseeing someone else’s work being produced before it becomes read, or listened to.
There are possible overlapping meanings of the metaphysical terminologies in question (supernatural, preternatural, and paranormal); even ‘metaphysics’ is a word with an ambiguous etymology and broad definition in modern dictionaries. By way of example, according to Dictionary.com and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Thesaurus, something that is metaphysical relates to abstract, immaterial objects of reference (e.g. Philosophy); principles or ideologies; alternate realities beyond nature and the physics of this world; and ‘supernatural’ is found among its synonyms and related words. A preternatural incident, or object, signifies something unnatural or unusual; and ‘supernatural’ is once again found among its synonyms. A paranormal event is without any scientific corroboration and could also be associated with the supernatural. Although distinctions could and should be drawn when these words are defined in isolation without a specified context, it is untrue that these adjectives cannot designate the same event or object within a particular text. This is the danger of relying on a dictionary or lexicon in order to instill the understanding of word meanings found in particular texts and contexts which aren’t necessarily the same as those found in any one dictionary. It potentially leads a reader to misunderstand and misinterpret what is precisely being communicated, and can even lead to unnecessary criticisms against an author. In the end, contexts ought to clarify the real meaning of any given word in usage within a particular piece of literature. It is true, however, that contexts at times may be unclear or inaccessible. In such situations, one cannot be certain what the author meant with precision, and the exegete must then adhere to probabilities and best guesses, unless the author is alive and reachable—but that is yet another matter.