Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Sunday, December 9

Etymology Errors?

I have been playing around with word meanings lately. How do words get meaning? We understand that words have a semantic range, a bundle of meanings, and it is the context of the passage and not the word’s etymology that is determinative of meaning.

And of course there is the dreaded "Etymological Fallacy,” the idea that a word’s meaning in any context is determined by the morphemes that make up the word itself. In fact, all you have to do is suggest that perhaps a word’s etymology still has some affect on its meanings in any context, and you can hear the ridicule in the blogs.

But is it actually that simplistic? How did words originally get their meaning? Certainly many words derived their meaning originally from their etymology. And why wouldn't they? Are you going to take morphemes that mean one thing, and put them together to form a word that has a totally different meaning? Of course not.

We all know that the danger is assuming that the meanings of the parts of a word are always present in every use of that word, no matter how many centuries the word has been in use. No argument here. But let's not forget that sometimes etymology can at least hint at a word’s meaning.

Here are a couple examples. In 1 Tim 1:14, Paul writes that “the grace of our Lord completely overflowed (ὑπερεπλεόνασεν) for me with faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” ὑπερπλεονάζω is from the preposition ὑπέρ, which adds the emphasis of abundance, and πλεονάζω, which does occur in the NT and means “to become more and more, so as to be in abundance” (BDAG). So here we have an example that most likely carries the meaning of its part. It is a rare word (hapax in the NT), the simple form does occur (so there is a suspicion that a compound might carry a special meaning), and ὑπέρ is a common combining form. Most importantly, it fits the context. So yes, the word here does carry its etymological meaning.

But elsewhere it is a little more difficult to decide. Take for example Paul’s charge that Timothy is to “command certain people not to continue teaching any different doctrine (ἑτεροδιδασκαλεῖν)” (1 Tim 1:3). ἑτεροδιδασκαλέω occurs in the NT only in the Pastorals as a description of the false teaching Timothy is having to confront (1 Tim 6:3). Is there a clue to the nature of their false teaching in the fact that Paul uses ἑτερο-?

I write this in my commentary. “In classical Greek, ἕτερος meant ‘another of a different kind’ (LSJ, 701), and ἅλλος meant ‘another of the same kind.’ But by the time of the NT this distinction was not always present (BAGD, 315 [1bg]; Turner, Grammatical Insights, 197–98; F. Selter and C. Brown, NIDNTT 2:739; H. W. Beyer, TDNT 2:702–4). However, the context of 1 Tim 1:3 shows that this old meaning is present here (cf. Mark 16:12 [TR]; Luke 9:29; Rom 7:23; 1 Cor 15:40; Jas 2:25). It is not that the teaching of the opponents was merely different; it is that their teaching was essentially different and therefore wrong. It is the same situation that Paul found himself in with the Galatians (Gal 1:6–9). They were turning to a ἕτερον εὐαγγέλιον, although, as Paul quickly qualifies, there is no ἅλλος gospel but only perversions.”

So yes at times the etymology of a word still comes through. But there are certain situations in which this tends to be true, and ultimately context must decide.

Let the blogs begin.


It is uncanny that you covered this topic. I just finished reading (in a marathon, one-shot sitting) D.A. Carson's Exegetical Fallacies as you recommended in BBG (which I am working through as well) where he discusses the above regarding μονογενὴς. This ultimately led me on a very in-depth study where I ran across a very lengthy discussion on a Christian forum where the debate quickly turned heated in regards to the roots and in more than one place argued etymology over usage (in contrast to your statement and Mr. Carson's). It is funny how every argument you present, as well as Mr. Carson, came up in this discussion and the hard-headed reluctance to observe usage over etymology in very blatant terms. I certainly understand it isn't an all-or-nothing matter but as you stated, "ultimately context must decide.
"  I love Monday's with Mounce!  

Thanks. I enjoy writing them.