1Cor 4:1 — applying etymology (2)

In considering etymology‘s place in biblical studies, my primary new source of instruction has been Moisés Silva’s book Biblical Words and Their Meaning:  An Introduction to Lexical Semantics (1983-1994).  Here is the conclusion to his chapter on etymology:

Modern studies compel us to . . . distrust a word’s history; at the same time, we must use the past history of a word in coordination with its present use by means of the notion of transparency.  (p. 51)

For Silva, “transparency”¹ refers to one of three varieties of an inherent relationship between the word itself and its meaning:

  1. phonological — meaning connected to the sound made when uttering the word
  2. morphological — meaning connected to the component parts
  3. semantic — meaning connected to words used figuratively and yet understandably without background knowledge of the combined figure (Silva’s example — “foot of the hill”)

1.  Now, I can’t resist #1 above, because it relates to my poetic/aesthetic and musical sensibilities and training.  Silva suggests that some words may be “phonologically motivated” — impelled by the very sound they make.  Think onomatopoeia here — words like “sizzle” and “shush.”  It’s probably too much of a stretch to think that the Greek eresso [etymologically a component of hupēretas] might have been onomatopoetic, sort of making the sound of the oars in the water, or the mechanical steering components of ancient boats, but maybe it’s not too much of a stretch after all, and that’s the kind of thing my weird head goes to sometimes.  (Say the word out loud, repeating it at intervals, and you might think I’m less crazy:  ehr – ESS – oh . . . ehr – ESS – oh.)  This human, at least, hears the sounds of words in addition to their derived meanings, and I suspect a segment of humanity has always noticed sounds in this manner.  The questions in this case are at least two:  could this word have been phonologically motivated?  And could Paul have been conscious of that connection on some level?  The odds of affirmative answers for both of those together, I suppose, are not good, but I still feel like asking Paul about it.  (Please see the next post on Friday — a highly unusual type/style for me. . . .)

2.  Beyond a possible sound-connection, #2 above is also potentially related to the meaning of Paul’s word hupēretas or eresso.  Morphology (the identification and consideration of  linguistic units such as roots and prefixes) is more directly tied to what most of us think of as etymology, and this was the root impetus for these recent blogs.  The word hupēretas has two components; whether Paul might have been consciously aware of those components as he wrote remains my essential question.  The problem comes in not knowing what was in Paul’s head.  (Again, please see Friday’s post.  It’s not as heavy and hard to wade through as this one; it might be just as significant; and it was more fun to write.)

3.  With #3, I think Silva has in mind the semantic relationship of whole words, not the smaller morphological components such as roots . . . but figures of speech are perhaps in the background with both hupēretas and eresso. 

Silva has also contrasted the following two etymological approaches:

  • diachronic — an approach that considers evolution of words, moving through time
  • synchronic — an approach that analyzes language in one era, not considering historical change

These labels initially threw me off the scent—ironically enough, because of etymologically analyzable components:  the prefix “syn” implies “together” — which initially might suggest considering the developmental/historical senses of a word together, but that’s not what Silva means.  For him, the diachronic approach is more like what is commonly conceived of as “etymology,” which works with the components that have arisen in any time period.

“Even in the closest ties between historical and descriptive studies, however, the priority of synchrony, the dominant function of usage, must be maintained,” concludes Silva.  (p. 51)

While he gives some credence to (diachronic) etymology in determining NT Greek meanings, he allows more such latitude in Hebrew studies, noting, “The relative value of this use of etymology varies inversely with the quantity of material available for the language” (p. 42).  Because of 1) the nature of Hebrew, and 2) the relative paucity of documents available in Hebrew, “diachronic” etymology will play a more significant role in OT studies than with NT Greek studies.

Here are some other, summary points, when considering the place of etymology in translating:

    1. Some terms may only be apparently connected to the historical meanings, or to meanings of their component parts. (49)
    2. Compounds (such as hupēretas) and derivatives may lose their associations with earlier elements if those elements are no longer used. (49)  So, if eresso was falling out of use by the middle of the 1st century, hupēretas might no longer have been consciously associated with rowing.
    3. “Greek — a rather synthetic language – is relatively transparent.”  A compound word that at one point was associated with a certain idea could possibly be recalling that idea although no longer directly associated with it.  (49)  So, a compound word like hupēretas could still be recalling the idea of rowing or steering, although it might have lost any conscious association with eresso.
    4. a. A derivative term that retains its spelled-out components might well undergo semantic changes over a period of years, decades, or centuries.  b. It is also possible for a word to take on a new sense, disconnected from its historical etymology. (50)

So, what should one do — one who is reading, trying to understand, and trying to arrive at a translation of a rather obscure Greek word or expression?

Should he go with a basic, “gloss” meaning for a word, perhaps intuiting a bit from the immediate context?

Should he zoom out to a book-level context to see what might be possible in the mind of an author who uses a word?

Should he zoom out even further to consider other authors’ (biblical or otherwise) uses of the same word?  Their uses of similar/cognate words?  Their uses of other words in the same semantic domain?

Should he investigate the etymologically attested meaning and/or the semantic development of the term?

Should he dump the best definitions into a hopper to see what the average, common, consensus rendering might be?  What happens if he inadvertently seasons the mixture with one or two of the second-best definitions?

(Merit is found in all the above.)

Might a reader and would-be interpreter/translator also be so bold as to “dialogue” intuitively with the apostle Paul — in this case, to ask him, in absentia, what he meant by hupēretas?

[To be continued — in hypothetical dialogue with Paul]



¹ The opposite of transparent is opaque; an opaque word would be one with no apparent relationship between spelling/sounding and meaning — an arbitrary meaning, if you will.

Brian Casey, 2/18-25/2015


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