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 | , , , , | 15 Comments

Q&A: Who is Judas Iscariot and why is he called “Iscariot”?

From the about page:

Ooh, let me be number eleven! I’d like to formally ask about the possible meanings of Iscariot. Although I highly doubt it’s actually related to the Latin sicarius (assassin), I’ve heard that as an unlikely though interesting theory.

What explanation(s) of that surname/eponym do you find plausible?

As usual, I’ll start with a little background:

First, etymology is notoriously tricky, plagued by “folk etymology” that ignores the dissimilarities between two words and focuses only on what they have in common in order to validate a preconceived idea. For example, about a decade ago David Howard was fired for using the word “niggardly” — presumably because someone (wrongly) though it had something to do with an ethnic slur; the word actually comes from a completely different source. But Washington D.C. mayor Williams ignored the letter “d” in analyzing the word.

Secondly, the particular combination of Hebrew and Greek creates lots of potential ambiguity, for two reasons. The vowels in Hebrew are much less important than they are in Greek, and to a lesser degree the opposite is true of the consonants. And Greek spellings of Hebrew words conflate lots of letters, particularly the sibilants: so samech, sin, shin, and tzadi all end up as the same Greek sigma. Combined, these differences between Greek and Hebrew mean that it’s easy to find apparent connections between unrelated words.

Thirdly, we don’t know how ancient Hebrew was pronounced. A clear example is the Hebrew name rivka, which the LXX records as rebekka. The Hebrew as we now know it is a bisyllabic word, while the Greek points to a trisyllabic word, perhaps with a double letter.

With all of these caveats in mind, we can consider the Greek iskariot (“Iscariot” in English). I don’t think that iskariot is related to sicarius. The etymology I find most convincing is that the word comes from the Hebrew ish k’riot, a “man of k’riot.” The /sh/ in Hebrew becomes /s/ in Greek, as it usually does. The Greek /a/ between the /k/ and the /r/, lacking in the current vocalization of the Hebrew, could have been there originally, or it could have been a Greek addition. Iskariot is as close to ish k’riot as rebekka is to rivka.

K’riot (also spelled “kerioth”) is a city mentioned in Jeremiah 48:24, Jeremiah 48:41, Amos 2;2, and perhaps Joshua 15:25. The word is also the plural of kirya, “city.” So ish k’riot could mean “someone from K’riot” or “someone from the cities.” A similar example in Modern English is “twin cities,” which in most contexts means “Minneapolis and Saint Paul,” but could mean any two large cities near each other; another example is “tri-state area,” which for me means where I live (outside New York City), but I imagine there are others.

Furthermore, it’s common to use geographical terms not (only) to indicate place of origin but also for qualities stereotypically associated with that place. For example, k’na’anim (“Canaanites”) in Job 40:30 is almost universally translated as “merchants.” So ish k’riot could have meant “a guy from K’riot” or something roughly akin to “city boy,” with some connotation of what it meant to be from a city.

So even if iskariot comes from ish k’riot — and that’s my best guess — we still don’t know for sure why Judas was called that or what it signified.

November 29, 2009 Posted by | Q&A, translation theory | , , , , | 6 Comments