Etymology vs. Usage
Sun, 05 Jan 1997 21:20 -0500 (EST)

TO: B-Greek List
FROM: Harry J. Harm
DATE: 5 January 1997
RE: Etymology vs. Usage

Dear B-Greekers,

Greetings. Luke McNab in a previous post (excerpts below) gives some
reasons why etymology should be considered more important than usage.

As can be seen from previous posts I disagree with his views. I thought
that it may be enlightening to give a brief overview of my background so
that perhaps the reasons for my position can be more easily understood.

My BA is in Classical studies and my specialty was Greek literature. I
also studies Latin, linguistics and anthropology. My MA is in
linguistics. My courses were less concerned with theoretical linguistics
and instead focused on applied linguistics. I also did course work
towards a PhD in linguistics. My courses taught me to describe a
language as it is used not as it should be used. This is the difference
between descriptive linguistics and prescriptive linguistics. I also
took courses in semantics, literacy, translation theory and historical
and comparative linguistics. My specialty was discourse linguistics.
During this time I studied Hebrew. I also was exposed to Old English,
Arabic and languages in the Austronesian and Austro-Asiatic language
families. I have helped teach graduate level courses in translation
theory and Hebrew. I have worked as a consultant since 1984 to a
language project which is translating the Bible into a Native American

I approach all languages the same way. They all can be studied using the
same methodologies. Biblical Greek and Hebrew are no different than
other languages. There are not special rules for them. Unfortunately,
we do not have native speakers available to us. (I am still hoping that
an archaeologist will dig one up.) As Luke McNab indicated we do not
have all of the data ("we only have limited usages extant"). This makes
it more difficult to determine the meanings of some words but we still do
research the same way.

Luke McNab writes the following:

I suggest that the above expression is a reflection of modern
views and interpretation where _usage_ is considered superior to
_etymology_. With this the "ancients" [like myself] would not
concur, IMHO. The very basis of a word is its etymology. One ought
to remember that especially in Hebrew normally three letters
formed the fundamental meaning of a word. Prefix, infix, and
suffix would modify the word and give additionl nuances, but the
etymology harked back to the original three [normally] letters. I
believe that usage [and we only have limited usages extant] cannot
deny the base and etymology of a word, again IMHO. <snip>

According to the theory of language I follow, the meaning of the word is
based on how a word is used and not on the history of the word. This is
true in English and is true in all of the other languages I have
studied. I can understand a word apart from its etymology. In fact I
don't know the etymologies of most of the words I know and use.
Children learn the meanings of words from how they are used, not from
the histories of the words. An unlearned, illiterate can know the
meanings of words and, in fact, has to in order to communicate. But
that person is unlikely to know the etymologies of these words. The
only time etymology comes into play is when an unknown word is
encountered and the meaning is not clear from context. Then the person
may try to do some detective work, e.g., with pineapple. The person may
guess the history of the word correctly or incorrectly. The person may
be a philologist and be ale to prove the etymology of the word. But the
etymology would only give the right meaning in this context if the
etymology matched the author's usage, i.e., intended meaning.

Luke also wrote the following:

As mentioned in a previous post, interpretation [esp. of
theological words] in the NT ought to be based on the LXX usage
and etymology, rather than classical usage of Greek, as the
writers quoted voluminously from the LXX. <snip>

I indicated in another post how I would weigh the evidence available to
us. In the earch for the meanings of words used in the NT we should give
more weight to contemporary literature in Koine than to Classical usage.

If the author quotes from the LXX then how the word is used in the LXX
should carry weight in explaining the meaning of a word. Let's look at
monogenhs. Unfortunately, according to best information I have monogenhs
is only used four (4) times in the LXX. Each time it is a translation of
the Hebrw YaChiyd (assuming that the MT is the same in these four places
as the Hebrew text used by the LXX translators). The evidence from the
LXX is mixed. YaChiyd is used 12 (12) times in the Hebrew Bible. Four
(4) times the LXX translators render it as monogenhs. In Judges 11.34
(Jephthah's daughter) monogenhs could mean 'only begotten' or just
'only'. The context doesn't seem to be focusing on birth though. The
other three occurrences are in Psalms (22.20, 25.16, 35.17).
Unfortunately, these contexts don't provide much help in determing the
meaning of monogenhs in the LXX. Interestingly, the LXX translators
rendered YaChiyd as 'beloved' seven (7) out of twelve (12) times, even
when reference is made to Isaac in Genesis 22. I wonder what their
reasons were.

The validity of etymology is, IMHO, the basis for meanings of
words, otherwise we are reduced to confusion, slang and modern
jargon! American English is fast becoming such as we emphasize
more and more "usage" over etymology! <snip>

This is the difference between prescriptive linguistics (e.g., Henry
Higgins) and descriptive linguistics. As much as I cringe when an
infinitive is split, when 'impact' is used as a verb, when 'to you and I'
is spoken, I can still understand the meaning. I can even understand the
meaning of 'monokini' based on the folk etymology that in 'bikini' the
'bi' means 'two'. I know that the double negative in 'I ain't got no' is
not a positive statement. I know these things because of the usage of
these phrases. From the contexts where I have encountered these words
and phrases I have determined their meanings. I have not used etymology
to derive the meanings.

Thank you for y'all's patience. This went a bit longer than I planned.


Harry :{)