[b-hebrew] etymological fallacy and the meaning of almah

Martin Shields enkidu at bigpond.net.au
Mon Jul 30 23:24:54 EDT 2007

On 31/07/2007, at 11:48 AM, kenneth greifer wrote:

> How do you know if the idea that almah means virgin because its  
> root means
> "hidden" is an etymological fallacy? I never even heard of  
> etymological
> fallacy until a few hours ago, so I really don't know much about it.

You would commit the etymological fallacy if you defined a word based  
on etymology in such a way that you override other indicators of  
meaning such as context. You don't have to look far in most languages  
to see that etymology is frequently quite misleading (the word "nice"  
is frequently cited as a good English example, because if we were to  
follow etymology we would assign to it the meaning "stupid, ignorant").

Unfortunately with "dead" languages there are often words so poorly  
attested that etymology becomes one of the few means at our disposal  
for determining meaning. However, there remains a very real danger  
that using etymology to define meaning will mislead us, so any  
results based purely on etymology should be noted as tentative.

As for ‏עלמה being derived from "hidden," the connection between  
"hidden" and "virgin" doesn't immediately jump out at me. It could  
equally be argued that an ‏עלמה was "hidden" because she was not  
of an age to leave her father's house. There's sufficient ambiguity  
here to pretty much allow any meaning you want for ‏עלמה to be  
justified by such an etymological link.


Martin Shields,
Sydney, Australia.

P.S. This brings to mind the "reverse" etymological fallacy I've  
heard used to describe the meaning of the Greek term δυναμις  
based on the word "dynamite" in English!

More information about the b-hebrew mailing list