Etymology: YHVH = haShem (Dave)

Dave Washburn dwashbur at
Thu Aug 26 23:46:15 EDT 1999

Ian 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, and you're certainly free to disagree with Jim's 
> >statement.  However, in the context of language, words mean what 
> >they mean because a society chooses to use them that way.  
> Dave, we have a problem with Hebrew, which you're well aware of: we have no
> language users from that society to ask what things mean. All we've got are
> the texts, and you can see what sort of problems the list is having with
> one aspect of the verb system. If you've got a valid etymology, you can get
> closer to understanding. Valid etymology will always provide information
> regarding the significance of the language item. Maybe etymological
> information of long before may be misleading, but the closer you get to the
> time of the usage with your etymology then the more indication you have of
> significance.

True, but in the case of Hebrew we don't know how close we are to 
the time of usage when we start digging into roots etc. so how 
useful we determine it to be will necessarily be built on 
assumption.  Ultimately, context must be the determiner of what a 
word means.  

> >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.
> Got any examples?

Sure.  "Bad."  In recent years it's undergone a complete reversal of 
meaning, at least within several sub-cultures of America and other 
English-speaking countries.  In those sub-cultures it means 
"good."  Why?  Can etymology tell us?  Hardly.  The only reason is 
because a certain segment of a culture chose to use it that way.

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

More information about the b-hebrew mailing list