God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations


C O N T E N T S :
direct object
hapax legomenon
inclusive language

  • Antimetabole. Using the same words first in one order and then in reverse order. Genesis 9:6 is an example (ESV):

    “Whoever sheds the blood of man,//
    by man shall his blood be shed.”

    Antimetabole is frequently confused with chiasmus.

  • Apodictic. Used to describe laws or statements that differentiate right from wrong but do not state consequences. Frequently used in opposition to “casuistic.” (The Ten Commandments are apodictic.)

  • Asyndeton. Stringing together two or more items without conjunctions, as in Shakespeare’s “Are all thy conquests, glories, triumphs, spoils//Shrunk to this little measure?” (Julius Caesar).

  • Casuistic. Laws that prescribe consequences. Frequently used in opposition to “apodictic.” (Most modern Western laws are casuistic.)

  • Chiasmus. A parallelism of the sort AB/BA, when parallel parts appear first in one order and then in reverse order. Proverbs 12:20 is an example (NAB):

    Deceit is in the hands of those who plot evil,//
    but those who counsel peace have joy.”

    The parallel words (“deceit” and “joy”) and phrases — as marked by colors in this example — appear in reverse order in the second half of the verse. This reverse order parallelism is “chiasmus.” (The term comes from the Greek letter chi (“X”), which represents the “crossing” structure that can be seen when lines are drawn to connect the matching words or phrases.)

    Chiasmus is frequently confused with antimetabole.

  • Definite. Nouns come in two varieties, definite and indefinite. By and large, the former kind refers to a specific place or person or object, while the latter is for something yet to be identified. For example, “New York” and “the man” are both definite, while “a city” and “a person” are indefinite.

    The distinction is particularly important for Hebrew grammar, because definite direct objects usually get a special marking in the form of the preposition et.

    Some languages, like English, use vocabularly (“the” and “a”) to help distinguish definite nouns from indefinite ones. Other languages, like Russian, rely on word order or other clues.

  • Dialect. A subset of a language spoken by a recognized group of speakers. The difference between “language” and “dialect” is vague, and, in general, a matter of politics and not linguistics (as illustrated by the adage that “a language is a dialect with an army”). Sometimes the differences between two languages will be less pronounced than the differences between two dialects.
  • Direct Object. Generally, the object most closely related to a verb. (The grammatical term is actually very tricky to define precisely.) For example, “the money” is the direct object in: “I want the money,” “I saw the money,” “I gave Bill the money,” and “I gave the money to Bill.”

    The direct object is usually marked with accusative case in languages (like Greek or German) that have case.

  • Epistemology. The study of what knowledge is, what is knowable, and what it means to know something.

  • Gender. In linguistics, one way words can be categorized in some languages. For example, in Greek, both nouns and determiners come in three genders, and (almost always) the genders have to match. In anthropology, “gender” refers variously to ways that men and women differ.

    The partial overlap between the anthropological and linguistic usages of the word “gender” continues to confuse many people.

  • Hapax Legomenon (plural, hapax legomena). A word that only appears once in the Bible. It’s often hard to know what these words mean because context is an important clue to a word’s meaning, and by definition a hapax legomenon only appears once.

  • Inclusive Language. Generally, short for “gender inclusive language.” Language that, by default interpretation, includes both males and females in references. For example, “everyone is created equal” is gender inclusive, while, for many people, “all men are created equal” is not. In some contexts, the term “inclusive language” applies only to generic references. In other contexts — frequently including Bible translation — the term further applies to references to God. In yet other contexts, the term applies additionally to arbitrary references — for example, “when teachers enter a classroom, they want chalk available” instead of “when a teacher enters a classroom, he….”

    Furthermore, because “default interpretation” is dialectal and sometimes idiolectal, one speaker’s inclusive language may be another’s non-inclusive language.

  • Idiolect. A single person’s grammar, frequently as it may differ from the general grammar of the language. For example, the difference in English between “sofa” and “couch” is usually a matter of idiolect, which is to say, the difference depends on the individual speaker.
  • KJVO. “King James Version Only.” The approach that elevates the status of the King James Version (KJV) to (or near, or sometimes even above) the status of the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek text of the Bible.
  • Merism. Using the two extremities of a spectrum to refer to everything in between. For example, “young and old” is a merism because it includes young, old, and everyone in between. The term is frequently also used of a spectrum described in reference to its extremities, as in “from A to Z,” not just “A and Z.”

  • Metonymy. Using a word for something related to the word, for example, “lips” for “speech” or “White House” for “person at the White House (“The White House released a statement today….”).

  • Ontology. The study of what exists, how people categorize and group what exists, and the question of whether the two are the same.

  • Parallelism. The use of similar words in two or more phrases in a row; the similarity can be in the form of near synonyms, antonyms, homonyms, etc. For example, in Psalm 95:1 (NRSV):

    …let us sing to the LORD;//
    let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation.

    “Sing” (n’ran’na) is like “make a joyful noise” (a less than poetic translation for nari’a) and “LORD” is like “the rock of our salvation.”

    Parallelism in the Bible frequently serves to emphasize a point.

  • Pleonastic. The quality of contributing nothing to the semantics of a sentence. Pleonastic words are words that are used only for their syntactic role. For example, the “it” in “it’s raining” is pleonastic. The pronoun doesn’t refer to anything, but English demands a subject for the verb “raining.” Similarly, “there” in “there is a reason it’s raining” is pleonastic. In other languages, other words can be pleonastic.

  • Tetragrammaton. From the Greek for “four-letters,” the four-letter name of God in the Hebrew of the OT. The four letters are Y-H-W-H, and their original pronunciation is a common source of confusion. (I have some explanatory information and suggestions for reading here.)

I’m adding words one at a time, as I need them. Add a comment if you want me to add a word (or if you think I should change a definition).



  1. The following term would be helpful for the glossary since it has become such a lightning rod in the past few years among people concerned about English Bible translations:

    inclusive (or inclusive language)

    I have a personal interest in Hebraic poetic parallelism and its implications for English translation. So in addition to your glossary term for Parallelism, I suggest also including

    Asyndeton (or Appositive)

    English “and” does not allow conjoining of synonyms or near synonyms whereas Hebrew waw does. Most English Bible translators are not aware of this and so readers of their translations miss the poetic synonymy. English *does* sanction Asyndeton (or apposition) for conjoining synonyms, including those in series for rhetorical or poetic emphasis.

    Comment by Wayne Leman | October 14, 2009 | Reply

    • Thanks for the suggestions. I’ve added “asyndeton” and “inclusive language,” along with some other terms that came up in defining those two.

      Comment by Joel H. | October 18, 2009 | Reply

  2. Re:
    “English ‘and’ does not allow conjoining of synonyms or near synonyms” —

    That’s untrue — witness the common English expression “aches and pains,” or legal expressions such as “give and bequeath,” or “ordain and establish” (you may recognize the latter from the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States).

    Comment by Kate Gladstone | August 23, 2010 | Reply

  3. How about the term “translation” itself?

    Comment by Wayne Leman | January 18, 2012 | Reply

  4. paraphrase

    Comment by Wayne Leman | January 18, 2012 | Reply

  5. literal

    Comment by Wayne Leman | January 18, 2012 | Reply

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