Bags of Bran

Etymology Can Be Your Friend (if you actually cultivate the relationship)
March 2, 2014, 7:47 am
Filed under: Biography

I was reminded this morning of a passage in D. A. Carson’s helpful little book, Exegetical Fallacies, in which Carson is (rightly) decrying what he calls the “root fallacy,” in which we take the components of either the English word or the Greek word or the Hebrew word from the Bible passage, dissect the word, and figure out what it means from our understanding of the meaning of the parts. He gives the English example of “butterfly,” which if divided into two words yields “butt” and “erfly.” “Butt” really gets the laughs from juveniles of all ages in these days of high-cultured snootiness, but nobody knows what an “erfly” is, so we can only conclude that it’s dumb to look at the roots of words.

But what would happen if you were to actually chase down the etymological backgrounds of things? For example, “butterfly” almost certainly comes from the Old English  buterflēogewhich is a compound of two words that mean–and I hope you’re sitting down for this, because it’s going to stun you– “beat” and “fly.” It took me about 30 seconds to discover that.

If you’ve ever seen a butter churn, or better yet, if you’ve actually churned butter, it would not be confusing to you that the word “butter” comes from the Old English word that means “beat.” Ask an Amish fellow: you have to give whole milk a good beating to get the butter out of it. So, it seems that somebody of the Old English persuasion saw a bright-winged member of the family Papilionoidea, appraised its chaotic and violent flight, furrowed his craggy brow, and inscrutably concluded that it was “beating” the air with its wings. I know, this stuff is completely impenetrable to the 21st century mind. 

However, if that mind is interested, all it needs to do is to consult a good dictionary.

Incidentally, the same root that provides the enigmatic “butter” for “butterfly” lets us “bat” our eyelids; names our flying rodents known as “bats;” and lets us whip up pancake “batter.” All completely useless information in the understanding of anything, I’m aware. But let’s humor these benighted scribes who have strained gnats to write dictionaries for us. After all, what would we do without dictionaries if, say, the leg broke off the couch?

As for Greek words, we are dealing with a couple of millennia over which some information was lost, but there are still good resources available if one really wanted to dispel his ignorance about the roots of words. We have two works available in English that would do the trick: the magisterial Theological Dictionary of the New Testament of Kittel, and Walter Bauer’s redoubtable A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (3rd ed.), as well as the earlier works upon which these giants stand. These resources strive (seldom perfectly or lucidly) to give you meaning, not just a “gloss,” or one-word approximation of the meaning, as Strong’s Concordance (which is better than nothing) would. As I say, the resources are available, but it takes the will to consult and decipher those resources.

So to come back to Carson’s objection, I would say that the danger is in thinking you’ve done etymology when you’ve only consulted glosses. You have to dig a little deeper than perhaps the space-cramped author of the commentary in front of you if you want to trace the development of New Testament vocabulary. Just like you have to dig past the crusts of time to understand your own vocabulary. Is it worth knowing why words mean what they mean? I contend that if words actually mean anything, it’s worth knowing how they came to mean that.


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