Why the True Meaning isn’t the True Meaning
Last month, Bill Mounce, C. Michael Patton, and Clayboy all alluded to the issue of etymology, which is surely one of the biggest translation traps (and important enough that I devote considerable attention to it in my And God Said).
Etymology is really fun. Tracing a word’s winding history, seeing how meanings mutated, and learning about the legacy of long-dead meanings are engaging and entertaining ways to delve deeper into language. This is probably why people look to etymology to figure out what a word means, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that it doesn’t work.
As usual, we can start with some English examples to get a sense of things.
For example, people like to say that “commit” means to bundle your fate together with another’s, because, after all, “commit” comes from Latin that means “to put together.” It’s a lovely poetic thought (or not), but it’s not what “commit” means.
Similarly, “glamour” and “grammar” share an etymology, but that doesn’t mean that grammar is necessarily glamorous.
A third example comes from the English verb “to table,” which reflects the notion of sitting around a table at a meeting. But in America, “to table a motion” is to put the motion on the table where it won’t be seen until later; that is, it means “not to vote on.” By contrast, in England the phrase means to put the motion on the table in front of everyone, that is, “to vote on.” These two opposite meanings come from the same etymological source.
Hebrew and Greek
Hebrew and Greek work the same way as English in this regard, but still, at least one example seems in order. The root d.b.r gives us the words for davar (“thing”) and d’vorah (“bee”). The root may have originally been used for “speak,” and from there words based on it branched out, meaning (in the case of davar) “that which is spoken about” and (in the case of d’vorah) something that makes a buzzing sound not unlike speech.
But this doesn’t mean that bees in Hebrew are any different than in English. They don’t have a closer connection to speech than in English, for example. More generally, the perhaps interesting etymology does not tell us what the words mean.
The lesson is pretty clear: Don’t use etymology to figure out what a word means.
Finally (and this too is from And God Said), we can note that “in a lovely bit of irony that demonstrates our point, the word ‘etymology’ comes from the Greek for “true meaning.”
So the “true meaning” isn’t the meaning at all.