God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

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.


March 1, 2010 - Posted by | translation theory, Translation Traps | , , , ,


  1. Would you make a distinction between etymology, then, and productive compounding?

    Comment by Mike Aubrey | March 1, 2010

    • Compounding, productive or otherwise, properly falls into what I usually call “internal word structure,” and while I make a difference, internal word structure can be another trap.

      A particularly clear example (yet again from And God Said) comes from the English suffix “-ly.” By definition, a patent has to be non-obvious. Yet add the suffix “-ly” on to “patent” and you get “patently,” which means “obviously.”

      Comment by Joel H. | March 1, 2010

      • And/or “demonstrably.”

        Comment by WoundedEgo | March 1, 2010

      • That’s a relief. I wasn’t sure from your comment at Near Emmaus a few weeks ago. The post author spoke of etymology, but the word in question was the common IE preverb-verb compounding (verb-postverb in English, e.g. “take off”).

        Comment by Mike Aubrey | March 3, 2010

  2. There’s something wrong with all the logic around this topic. E.g. your ‘commit’ has dozens of meanings. It government, it is used to promise firmly funds for later expenditure – for a grant or a purchase order. Literally I would see it as ‘send with’. In French the government usage is ‘un engagement’. These etymological relations are not misleading. The problem you and clayboy are referring to is not the etymological fallacy but the fallacy behind the word ‘true’ or ‘real’. Words do not carry just one meaning. They bear like a beast many burdens. Meaning reduces them to a least or common middle ground and both emasculates their potential and prevents conception of the beauty of their created life. Meaning in its meanest sense is this mathematical mean or middle, a limited understanding of reality.

    Comment by Bob MacDonald | March 1, 2010

    • >>>…Words do not carry just one meaning. They bear like a beast many burdens….

      Ha! I like that! You use “bear,” which itself has many meanings, to “bear” your analogy. Ya gotta love it…

      Comment by WoundedEgo | March 1, 2010

      • heh – but it was meaner of me to demean meaning so.

        Comment by Bob MacDonald | March 1, 2010

    • Literally I would see it as “send with.”

      My question is whether thinking of the word “commit” as “send with” would help someone learning English understand sentences like, “I committed the material to memory” or “I committed enough funds to cover the program’s expenses.”

      Comment by Joel H. | March 5, 2010

  3. Thank you so much for your blog.

    I’ve ordered your two books.

    I’m working on a book titled The Sex Education of a Baptist Minister in which I will share how I came to the conlusion one’s sexual orientation and gender identity is not a sin. Although one chapter will deal with the Bible I’m addressing the entire issue of theological method and will be arguing that experience, reason, tradition, scripture, science, are all equal sources for our theologies, and all are problematic sources.) I’ve read several things about translation issues, but I wanted to ask if you had any recommendations particularly on 1) the power of the translator, 2) history of translation theory, issues, etc., and 3) the complexities of the translation of Biblical texts.

    Comment by Chris Ayers | March 1, 2010

    • Translation Theory might contribute something to your research, but you might also want to research the effects of Atrazine on frogs… I think it has more to do with the current state of affairs than does translation theory.


      If you have a specific translation concern, post it on the About page. Is there a particular passage that you think has been mistranslated, for which you might suggest a better translation?

      I hope I’m not being rude, but I’m concerned that this discussion could suddenly veer off topic.


      Comment by WoundedEgo | March 1, 2010

    • Hi Chris,

      I’m still without phone/Internet at home (Day 5 — thank you Cablevision), so it’s difficult for me to provide exact references, but I have an annotated list of suggested reading in an appendix to And God Said, which, if you’re already ordering the book, is a great place to start.

      Umberto Eco has written about the power of the translator and the line between interpretation and translation, for example in The Limits of Interpretation or Interpretation and Overinterpretation.

      More generally on translation, classic books like Andre Lefevere’s Translating Literature and Translating Poetry will give you a sense of the field; so will Newmark’s Textbook of Translation.

      I don’t know of a good book on the history of translation theory (anyone?), though I know people have given the matter a lot of thought for at least 2,000 years. Cicero, for example, writes about translating Greek.

      Regarding the complexities of Bible translation, obviously I recommend my And God Said, which was written to address that exact issue. I would also recommend that you at least look at Ryken’s Understanding English Bible Translation and my review of it. I don’t agree with Ryken, but contrasting my book with his will give you a sense of the debate. (Reading my review may be enough.)

      Good luck with your work.

      Comment by Joel H. | March 2, 2010

  4. While I am fully aware of the dangers inherent in etymological analysis, I must admit that when words *do* exhibit a logical progression in their actual usage, it does provide a nice memory aid, and a satisfying sense that “there is a touch of order in the universe!”

    But, sometimes it is definitely all fact, and no reason; Often things are the way they are, and there is no (discernable) “because.”

    Here’s a fun example…

    In Argentina, (where I lived for a while), they have an expression similar to our “way kewl” that essentially means “bearded.” If something is “way kewl” they say “Barbaro!”

    Bearded? Hello?!

    Comment by WoundedEgo | March 1, 2010

  5. False etymologies provide for good memory aid, too. qavar means to “cover” someone with dirt. That’s how I remember that it means to bury.

    Comment by Gary Simmons | March 2, 2010

  6. I must admit that when words *do* exhibit a logical progression in their actual usage, it does provide a nice memory aid, and a satisfying sense that “there is a touch of order in the universe!”

    I agree. Another way of thinking of this is that eymology doesn’t tell us what a words means, but things work better in the other direction: Once we know what a word means, etymology can help us remember it.

    Comment by Joel H. | March 5, 2010

  7. […] word-internal structure to figure out what words mean. We saw this last week with toldot and in a comment regarding […]

    Pingback by Top Translation Traps: Relying on Structure « God Didn't Say That | March 8, 2010

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