barr on semantics

yochanan bitan ButhFam at
Wed Aug 4 09:09:07 EDT 1999

bryan wrote:
>But he suggests, if I understand
>correctly, the four words are merely synonomous and should
>be thought of as equivalent, all meaning simply "man" to the
>ancient Hebrew.  He denies that the Hebrew would have been
>in any way burdened by etymologically connecting, for
>example, 'adam to 'adamah and 'edom or geber to the idea of
>strength or greatness.  I disagree that the four words are
>merely equivalents or that the writers of the Tanakh were
>not, in general, keenly occupied with their lexical options
>or with root meanings and etymological connections as per
>'adam to 'adamah, etc.  The elevated literary register/style
>of the Tanakh, I guess, is not the register/style of the
>ancient street and market.  At least, suppose that the style
>may be elevated, literarily keen.  As part of their
>register/style, the writers of the Tanakh utilize an
>elevated, literary consciousness of etymology that deserves
>to be savored.  Writers savor words; readers should.

it's been too long since i've read barr for me to defend details. in
general, though, the above strikes me as implying a false dichotomy.
synonyms are never 100% equivalent in a language. [i don't remember barr
saying that, hope he didn't.] and a moratorium on etymological exegesis
does not preclude very refined literary style. literary register and
nuances of appropriate collocation are part of every word's profile in any
literary keeness does not mean that etymological definitions are
justifiable.  a word's usage is its true meaning and it is interpreted
against the other options that were not chosen.

irrelevant to the above discussion is "word play", which may include
popular etymology, being used for literary effect. that was certainly a
tool in a storyteller's art, but that is another layer and removed from
beyond a word's meaning. e.g., jonah 4 has tsel ... lehatsil 'a shadow ...
for saving', an effective word play but not etymology, in this case.
randall buth

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