Re: etymology and Semantic domains

From: Don Wilkins (
Date: Fri Apr 24 1998 - 16:06:08 EDT

(My apologies to list readers for not reproducing the relevant posts, due to
their length.)

Rolf, thanks very much for your reply; your example of KOSMOS clears things
up for me, I think. If one turns to BAGD for example, one could opt to use
'world' everywhere except in 1 Pet. 3:3, where 'adornment' would be
preferable. Even in James 3:6 'world' would work, much as in the common
idiom "to be in a world of hurt," and might convey more force than BAGD's
"sum total". To give etymology its due, we might say that the root KOSM- has
to do with good or due order, whence such ideas as adornment and world
order. Then we could move on to contextual and semantic factors, choosing
such words as 'universe' or 'mankind' from BAGD for the appropriate
passages. However, I suspect that the last approach is in reality very
simplistic, however much it may seem to commend itself. Not that I wouldn't
use it; I might for lack of a better alternative. The problem that I see
with it is that one must consider what vocabulary the original writer had at
his disposal, and then reflect on whether the choice of one word over
another--especially of an apparently less clear term for a clearer one--has
significance. For example, using KOSMOS for mankind, when we might have
expected something like ANTHRWPOI, could be significant. Incidently, the
very demanding exercise of prose composition, though headache-causing (just
ask anyone who has had a class in it), is an excellent way to get in the
mood for this approach.
         So then, we need to know the writer's mental thesaurus, and what
special nuance(s) the chosen word would have had for him at that moment in
time. To do a decent job of figuring this out, as it seems to me, we need to
read all the relevant Greek texts containing the word in question, and then
come to a conclusion about the meaning of the word using the same circular
(or should I say inductive?) reasoning that a geologist uses to determine
the age of a particular layer of earth. This would necessarily include
literature before the time period in question and perhaps even after it, so
that we could get our bearings by knowing the changes the word has
undergone. We now have access to the literature thanks to electronic storage
media, but it will still take us a long time to read it, and most likely we
will instead fall back on secondary sources like lexicons and commentaries.
Is that not what we are really doing in the end? And what of the people who
have written these resources? What have they done? We can of course compare
secondary sources and restrict our primary sources to the writer's works and
other biblical texts, and then perhaps devise a new "functionally
equivalent" rendering of a passage based on our new inferential knowledge.
But this rendering will still be built on a foundation of secondary sources,
and while we hope that they are correct, how do we know? (I am tempted to
say, "If you can't trust LSJ, who can you trust?", but I've already
explained the trouble that this once got me into.)
        As I remarked before, intelligent readers may view such a
translation more as commentary than translation. That's not so bad, since
they at least know what they are getting if they use it. I'm much more
concerned about readers who, e.g., purchase a translation strongly oriented
toward functional equivalence and don't really understand the translation
        Before closing let me add that I do *not* want to start a new thread
on formal vs. functional or dynamic equivalent translations, because that
has been discussed in the past at length. My focus has been entirely on the
methodology and sources used to determine lexical (and possibly syntactical)

Don Wilkins

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