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

Robert Newman rob at designceramics.co.uk
Tue Jul 31 13:18:14 EDT 2007

Hello Martin,

You write:
MS - 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").

RN - Yes, etymology is a limited tool for lexicographers. Your example is a good one. "nice" is according to the Oxford English Dictionary from Old French from Latin 'nescious' ignorant (not know), hence also the English word 'nescient' which can mean either 'ignorant' or 'agnostic'. the dictionary gives 14 meanings for 'nice' and 7 of them are no longer used. Four or five hundred years ago the word did indeed mean 'foolish, stupid, senseless' at that time the etymology would have not been so misleading. Over just a few hundered years the English language has changed considerably when it comes to the meaning of words, surely the more change in a language the less helpful etymology becomes. This raises a question in my mind. 

How much did the Hebrew language change over time?

I've heard it said that Hebrew has been relatively stable in comparrison to other langauges. I've no doubt there are different viewpoints. It seems to me that this is something that could influence a persons view of the value of etymology, is it to be completely cast aside or is it worth a cautious look.

MS- 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.

RN - You are certainly right.

MS - 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.

RN - It was a few days ago now, but I think it was Karl R who mentioned the derivation 'hidden, not known'. He is in my view a competent lexicographer and knows better than to fall into the etymological trap. If I remember rightly he noted the euphemism in the hebrew Bible of 'knowing' with sexual relations, he did not invent that euphemism but raised the possibility that the same euphemism is at play.

Martin Shields,
Sydney, Australia.

Warm Regards
Robert Newman
Essex England

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