Re: Monogenhs etymology

From: Jonathan Robie (
Date: Sun Jan 05 1997 - 21:50:28 EST

I'm going to allow myself one more post on this subject, and then I'll try
to withdraw gracefully, since I don't want to prolong this indefinitely...

At 04:47 PM 1/4/97 -0800, Luke McNab wrote:
>Harry Harm quotes Carl Conrad:
>Carl Conrad wrote, "Frankly, although etymology fascinates me, I don't
>think this is ultimately very important for the MEANING of MONOGENHS;
>far more significant ultimately than etymology surely is actual attested
>usage of the word elsewhere in Greek texts."
> 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.

But etymology is *based* on actual attested usage of words over time.
Without this, there is no way to do etymology. To know that a word is
derived from another word is no help at all unless I know what the other
word means.

In many cases, it brings no additional information. Suppose you want to know
what the word "nose" means. The best thing to do is to ask a native speaker,
who will point to his nose. Suppose your informant, instead of pointing to
his nose, tells you that "nose" is related to the German "Nase", and points
out the following historical cognates: OE nosu = OFris. nosi, nose, nosa,
nos, M Du. nose, nuese, MLG might be very impressed with his
scholarship (until you realized that he just looked it up in the OED, which
took 3 minutes), but you still don't know what a nose is. Of course, if you
can establish that "nose" in Middle Low German means the pointy thing in the
middle of a human face, and can establish the historical connection between
the MLG "nose" and modern English "nose", then you might eventually come to
an understanding of the meaning of this term. But I don't think that is the
most direct way, or that this approach enriches my understanding of the term

In other cases, it *does* bring new information. It might remind me, for
instance, what a pineapple looks like.

>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.
> The references given by me for the Hebrew corresponding word to
>MONOGENHS deals with the primary significance of the word which is
>"only-begotten". Other references were omitted as a slight difference or
>nuance was probably implied.

Are you implying that the right way to approach the etymology of a Greek
word is to find the corresponding Hebrew word and look at that? Do you
reject the etymological approach taken by lexica like
Bauer-Arndt-Ginrich-Danker and Liddel-Scott-Jones?

> In no way am I trying to build any doctrine on any one verse, but I
>believe that in all honesty the validity of the KJV [esp. in John 3:16]
>ought to be admitted and not detracted from, by translators.

John was probably not familiar with the KJV, so I don't think that the KJV
should be taken as normative. It is, in general, a pretty good translation,
especially for its day, and I do like to look at translations to examine the
ranges of meaning they employ, but it isn't the best source for exploring
the original meaning of Greek words.

> 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.

When I quote from the Bible, should people who want to understand the
meaning of words I use turn to Hebrew or Greek sources, even when I'm *not*
quoting Scripture?

> With respect to "pineapple" and its derivation as suggested by
>Jonathan, it is needful to realize that English like other Teutonic
>languages, likes to put nouns together and in combination, where other
>languages would use an adjective. It is interesting to note that in
>Spanish the word "pin~a" is used; Portuguese "pinha"; and in the tropics
>just the word "pine" is frequently used for pineapple. The etymology
>then does not consist of "pine" + "apple". Perhaps one ought to be very
>careful in linking "apparent" etymology where no relation exists.

The Oxford English Dictionary, which I was quoting, and which I cited as the
source, is usually pretty good at etymology for English. As I said, it says
that "pineapple" once referred to pine cones (and pine nuts), and came to
refer to a fruit which looks like a pine cone. It cites a number of
references showing the usage of the term to refer to pine cones between 1398
and 1712.

According to the OED, the Spanish word "pin~a" also originally referred to
pine cones and pine nuts, and also came to be used for pineapples.

The etymology of the OED is, of course, based on historical usage, as is all
etymology, and if you disagree with its etymology, you can only disagree on
the basis of historical usage. (The OED doesn't cite any Hebrew sources on
this word...)

>With all respect to the above, it seems to me that we are discussing
>apples and oranges here.

Pineapples, actually...

>English is a real melange of languages and
>really has no connection to languages like Hebrew [and to a lesser
>extent Greek] which is absolutely based on etymology and derivatives, as
>I said in a previous post!

What do you mean by "absolutely based on etymology and derivatives", and how
do you justify your belief that this is more true for Greek than for English?

I think it would be pretty easy to come up with lists of Greek words similar
to the English "pineapple", words for which it is important to understand
historical usage in order to avoid misleading etymology and misleading
statements about the meaning of a word. I used an English example because we
all speak English better than Greek, and it is easier to intuitively judge
the validity of such an example in your native tongue.

>We all know that English originally was a rather monosyllabic language
>probably because of the low uncultivated nature of
>the Teutons of the day. Civilization came to England and northern Europe
>via the Romans.

This may be getting a bit off the subject, but I can't resist pointing this out:

Before the Romans came, England was inhabited by Celts, who were anything
*but* monosyllabic, which should be clear to anybody who has read Welsh road
signs or tried to sing Irish Gaelic songs. The Druids were Celtic priests.
We don't know that much about them, so it is difficult to say how cultivated
they were, but they knew enough about astronomy to build Stonehenge.

After the Romans had left, the Anglos and the Saxons came to England,
bringing their Germanic languages, and ruled England until William the
Conqueror, who brought the French language into the mix. The Romans never
had a chance to civilize the English, and certainly not the Americans, so as
far as I can tell, we are probably still uncivilized - which is why we've
succumbed to slang, modern jargon, and belief that historical usage is
essential to any understanding of word meanings, including etymology.


Jonathan Robie
POET Software, 3207 Gibson Road, Durham, N.C., 27703
Ph: 919.598.5728 Fax: 919.598.6728
email:, <--- shockwave enabled!

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.4 : Sat Apr 20 2002 - 15:38:01 EDT