TIP of the day: from the blogs - the meaning of a word

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MJ. Smith | Forum Activity | Posted: Sun, Jan 31 2016 11:36 AM

From Word Studies on the Biblical Training site:

Basic Principles for Biblical Word Studies

A. Words generally have a semantic range, not one all-encompassing “meaning”

When using them, then, let’s talk about some basic principles for word studies, some basic principles of lexical semantics. Here is our first principle. Words generally have a semantic range, not one all-encompassing meaning. Let’s take the English word “field,” what does the English word “field” mean? Well it does not have a literal meaning; it has a range of possible meanings. 

Field could mean a cultivated piece of land. Field could refer to a background area as in a flag with a field of blue. It could refer to a topic or subject of academic interest like the field of mathematics. It could be an area where a sport takes place, like the players took to the field. So words do not generally have a literal meaning or an all-encompassing meaning, they have what we call a semantic range. 

And it is the same with Greek or Hebrew words, that is words that are in the Bible. Take the word charis, for example. A beginning Greek student might say, “Charis, oh that word means “grace” as in Ephesians 2:9, for it is by grace you have been saved through faith.” But, in fact, the word charis can mean much more than grace, it can mean favor, for example. “Do not be afraid Mary, you have found favor with God” in Luke 1:30. It can mean not undeserved favor sometimes we think of grace but credit earned. Luke 6:32 says, “If you love those who love you what charis, what credit, is that to you?” It can mean good will earned. Acts 7:10, “He gave Joseph wisdom and enabled him to gain the good will of Pharaoh King of Egypt.” It can mean thanksgiving. Luke 17:9, “Would he thank, or give grace, to the servant because he did what he was told.” So the word has a semantic range, not one all-encompassing meaning. 

B. Context determines which particular “referent” or “sense” within this semantic range the author intended. 

So what determines which meaning is correct? The answer, of course, is a word we have used a lot in this class, this course, and that word is context; context determines which sense is intended. I know that the word charis means undeserved favor or grace in Ephesians 2:8-9, because it says, “For it is by grace you have been saved through faith and that not of ourselves,” it is nothing you have done. I know that it means credit earned or good will in Luke 6:32, because of the context “what credit is that to you,” or “what have you earned” in that case. So it is the context, the words around it, the literary context that determines which sense, which meaning within the semantic range that the author intended. 

C. Words normally have only one “sense” in any particular literary context.

So two principles, words generally have a semantic range, not one all-encompassing meaning. Secondly, context determines which sense the author intended and third words normally have only one sense in any particular context. If I say, “he planted corn in his field,” I mean by “field” a cultivated piece of land. If I say, “he is an expert in the field of mathematics,” then I mean a field of study. I do not mean both meanings when I say the word, I only mean one. So our third point again, words normally have only one sense in any particular context. 

D. The meaning of words often changes over time.

A fourth principle, the meaning of words often changes over time. In English this becomes very obvious when we read the King James Version, first published in 1611. Sometimes we read a word whose meaning has significantly changed. For example, James 5:11 in the King James Version says, “The Lord is very pitiful.” Well, “pitiful” in contemporary English means weak. Pitiful means to be pitied, but in fact when the King James Version was translated pitiful meant full of pity or compassionate, so modern translations say the Lord is compassionate in James 5:11. 

James 2:3 in the King James Version says, “You have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing.” Now in contemporary English the word “gay” has come to mean homosexual, but that it not what it meant in the King James Version, it meant fancy or expensive in that context. And so our fourth principle, once again, is the meaning of words changes over time and we see that very clearly throughout the King James Version as the Elizabethan English meaning of words is very different than the contemporary English meaning of words. 

E. Etymology is never a reliable guide to meaning.

Here is a fifth principle of lexical semantics and that fifth principle is that etymology is never a reliable guide to meaning. Now etymology refers to a word’s component parts or to its history, its historical derivation. Let me explain to you what those mean. Etymology refers to component parts. 

Take the word “pineapple.” Well that word has two parts, pine and apple, yet a pineapple is neither a pine tree, nor it is a kind of apple. So our point again is etymology is never a reliable guide to meaning. The component parts of pine and apple do not tell us what the word means. 

Take the word “understand.” Understand does not mean to stand under, understand means in English to comprehend. Or take the word undertake, undertake does not mean to take under, it means to begin a task or an undertaker is someone who prepares bodies for burial. So we can see that the component parts of a word do not determine its meaning. 

In American football we have the word quarterback. Quarterback is the leader on the offensive side in a football team who receives the snap and throws the passes and makes the handoffs, but we do not know what that word means based on its component parts quarter and back. So etymology can refer to component parts. 

Etymology can also refer to historical derivation, where a word actually comes from or what its meaning originally was. Take the English word “Monday.” Where does the word Monday come from? Well Monday originally referred to the moon day, the day of the moon, the day dedicated or named after the moon, yet few English readers even know that, we would never say that Monday is moon day, we would say Monday is a day of the week, the second day of the week, the first day of the work week. 

Sunday originally referred to the day of the sun, but when we mention Sunday we mean the first day of the week, the day we worship in church. We do not mean the day we worship the sun. So historical derivation of the word has nothing to do, or can have nothing to do with its meaning. 

Here is another example, take the word sophomore. The word sophomore refers to a student in their second year of high school or their second year of college. A second-year student is a sophomore. Well, the word sophomore comes from two Greek words, sophos and moros and it means a wise fool. A sophomore is a wise fool because a freshman knows nothing and recognizes they know nothing. A sophomore thinks they know everything, but in fact they are just a wise fool. That is where the word originally came from, but the word does not mean that in contemporary English. The meaning of a word is not derived from its historical origin. 

Here is one final example, take the months of the year, this is very interesting. The months of year in English – September, October, November, December, what does September mean? Well sept means seven and so we would expect September to be the seventh month, but it is the ninth month. October, oct means eight, we would expect October to the eighth month, but in fact it is the tenth month. November, nov means nine, November is the eleventh month. December, dec means ten, December is the twelfth month. So you can see the names of the months are misnamed with reference to which month they actually are. 

Now how did that happen? It happened historically because the Romans moved from a ten-month calendar to a twelve-month calendar. They added two months, July and August, named for Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus and therefore all the months moved down one, but etymology had nothing to do with the meaning of those months because they kept the names – September, seventh month, even though they were referring to the ninth month. So our point, once again, is etymology is never a reliable guide to meaning. That will become very significant when we talk about avoiding word study fallacies.

F. Two Steps for Word Studies

Here is our conclusion to this initial section and that is that the meaning of a word is determined by two things, its contemporary semantic range, that is, what the word can mean. How would you determine a contemporary semantic range? Of a word in English you would look it up in a dictionary, that is how you would find out. You would look it up in a dictionary, because dictionaries tell us basically what a word can mean. 

Its contemporary semantic range and secondly a meaning of a word is determined by the literary context in which it is used. What the context determines that it does mean in this particular context. So there are two basic steps to doing a word study. The first is to determine what the word can mean by looking it up in a dictionary or by looking it up in a lexicon. A lexicon is another word for a dictionary referring to the use of the biblical languages in English, a Greek lexicon, a Hebrew lexicon, and then examining the context. The second step is to examine the context to determine which of its possible senses the word means.


PS I may disagree with him on quarterback as the meaning of quarter should be taken in relationship to fullback and halfback. Geeked

Orthodox Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev: "To be a theologian means to have experience of a personal encounter with God through prayer and worship."

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