YHVH = haShem

Dave Washburn dwashbur at nyx.net
Thu Aug 26 23:40:32 EDT 1999

> >Will Wagers wrote:
> > > >At 09:30 PM 8/24/99 -0400, you wrote:
> > > >
> > > > >
> > > > >Someone earlier mentioned a book that detailed etymological origins of
> > > > >Biblical Hebrew terms. Could they look this up for us and 
> >explain what the
> > > > >book says about SHEM ?  SHEMAYIM? etc. ?
> > > >
> > > >Etymological studies are interesting enough- but they really do not help
> > > >much in understanding either usage or meaning in context.
> > >
> > > I disagree. History is the context of all.
> >
> >This is a nice cliche,
> Really? I've never heard it put that way and thought it summed up my
> argument nicely without boring everyone to death.

I've heard it many times.  It really doesn't say much.

> >However, in the context of language, words mean what
> >they mean because a society chooses to use them that way.  How
> >they got where they are is sometimes an interesting study, but it
> >frequently tells us virtually nothing about what the word meant at
> >the time in question.
> I think saying that "a society chooses" is a misleading, anthropomorphic
> description of the process, intimating that society has a mind analogous
> to a human mind, that it is free to choose, and that it consciously chooses.

Yes, it does.  An individual may arbitrarily use a word in a certain 
manner, but it won't actually carry that meaning in anyone else's 
vocabulary until a segment of the person's society chooses to 
recognize the meaning he has given it.  An example: when my 
niece was younger, she tended to use the word "compared" in 
contexts that generally called for "according."  Hence she'd say 
"The car isn't running, compared to daddy."  She meant that her 
father had told her the car wasn't running.  Does "compare" now 
carry a meaning akin to "according"?  No, because she was the 
only one who ever used it that way.  Now, had her parents and their 
friends begun to use it that way, and influenced others in the 
circles beyond theirs picked it up, a society might have picked up 
the meaning and chosen to use the word that way.  That's how 
words acquire meaning.

> The fact is: *society chooses* to use words in a remarkably consistent
> manner, to modify those meanings in logical ways, and to choose most
> often to have meanings mean what they have always meant: This is one
> thing we can learn from etymology.

Not so.  If I tell you that you're a nice person, am I calling you 
ignorant?  Because that's the word's etymology.

> In this case, the "society choosing" what the words mean is two
> millennia after the fact.


> I disagree that the history of a word tells us nothing about the meaning:
> In fact without a history, a word is meaningless.

Really?  "Television" had no history before the 1930's and yet it 
appeared fully formed.  Greek writers including Paul were famous 
for coining new words, and German makes up new words on the fly 
all the time.  If "without a history, a word is meaningless" then 
explain the etymology of "Smurf" to me.

> Oddly, I often see people, who disavow that etymology is useful,
> nevertheless argue that a word means such-and-such in this context
> and so-and-so in that at this-or-that time, i.e. history or etymology.

A word's history is not the same as its etymology.  "Breakfast," 
until a few decades ago, meant "the first meal of the day, taken in 
the morning."  Thanks to a successful ad campaign by Village Inn, 
it now means "a particular category of foodstuffs including but not 
limited to bacon and eggs, pakcakes, waffles and fresh fruit."  
Thus, when the man in the commercial says "I like breakfast, and I 
like it at six o'clock in the evening" he is redefining a word right 
before our eyes and we don't even realize it.  That's the word's 
history; its etymology is something quite different.  That involves 
breaking it down into its component parts and explaining how it 
originated.  You're confusing two very different fields here.

Dave Washburn
"Oh, no!  They've all become giant Swiss lederhosen-clad
dancing yodelers!"  "Talk about unpredictable!" - P&B

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