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Monday, April 10, 2006

Orthotomeo VII

One of the unrecognized perqs of being an academic is that you get to meet really interesting people. In the 1970’s there were a group of Russian linguist refuseniks who ended up in various universities in the West, some of them quite colorful characters. In my career, I’ve crossed paths with several. But one, in particular, is worth mentioning in connection with our discussion of ὁρθοτομέω. His name is Igor Mel’chuk, he is still at the Université de Montréal. I had met him briefly and had had some correspondence with him about Ojibwe, the language I focus on, when we met again at a conference in Toledo (Spain) in the summer of 1985. He took me around to meet his Russian friends and showed me how to do Spain on the cheap – far more interesting than the sanitized tour plan I had had. By the time we parted, me to go home and him to go visit an old friend in the Pyrenes (a really old friend it turns out, an aunt of Trotsky’s who was then over 100), I had learned a lot of unexpected things about language as well as about Spain.

The particular feature of language I became aware of through this encounter is called a collocation. What is a collocation? At first approximation it is a phrase which must be said a certain way, draw a breath, take a bath, commit a crime, catch a cold, etc. A small group of Russian scholars, including Mel’chuk, started in the 1970’s to work on understanding this remarkably common phenomenon. They developed a theory of meaning which takes into account that many meanings in many languages are spread over two (or more) words. In Indo-European languages (like Greek and English) the principle domain for this phenomenon is the combination of a verb plus its object (known in the business as a verb phrase or VP). In some Indo-European languages there are lots of these verb object combinations (German has many more than English, for example), others fewer. In Indo-European VP collocations a disproportionate amount of the meaning resides in the object. (It always drove Mel’chuk crazy that Algonquian languages, like Ojibwe don’t work this way.) In the examples above most of the information is in the noun. Many could almost be paraphrased with a neutral verb like do: do a breath, do a crime, do a bath. Terrible English, but very little information is lost.

There is much that one could say about collocations, but for our purposes only one thing is important. In an Indo-European VP collocation, when you look at the verb, all semantic bets are off. So when you take something you not only bring it into your possession, but you also move it somewhere, but when you take a bath, you don’t exactly come to possess it, nor do you move it anywhere. And when you catch a cold it actually catches you. And the verb in commit a crime (noun form commission) doesn’t have any semantic relation to its productive meanings outside of the collocation:
(1) ‘promise’ (noun form commitment)
   The UN committed $4.5 million to famine relief in Darfur.
   She committed herself to going on the short-term mission trip.
(2) ‘transfer, hand over’ (no noun form)
   They committed him to a mental institution.
   He committed it to memory.
   Into thy hands I commit my spirit. (archaic)
At best the part of the overall meaning that can be assigned to the verb proper is a pale version of its meaning outside the collocation, as in draw a breath (i.e., draw air into the lungs) but in productive use draw generally suggests effort is involved to overcome some difficulty.
They drew the puss out of the wound.
or figuratively,
They drew the information out of him bit by bit.
(I’m not sure what to make of sentences like We were driving down the highway minding our own business when a police car drew along side of us. I have a theory, but it would be too much of a digression.)

So what does all this have to do with ὁρθοτομέω? A lot. I said that Suzanne didn’t recognize the importance of what she had found when she dug up the Koine (and, in fact, Classical Greek) collocation τήν ὅδον τέμνω. I misspoke, but only slightly. I should have said, she didn’t understand the full significance of what she’d found. Having shown, as LSJ attest, that this is a collocation, the ‘cut’ meaning of τέμνω is no longer present, or at least the burden of proof now devolves to the person who claims that it is. The expression just means something along the lines of ‘follow a road/trail/path’. LSJ traces the steps of how it goes from a more compositional meaning ‘make (by cutting) a path’ > ‘take a path’ > ‘follow a path’, which I will not repeat here. But suffice it to say that this is how collocations arise. Inch by inch they get interpreted as having slightly different meanings in subtlely vague contexts. The cumulative effect is that the original meanings of (some of) the parts are ultimately left behind. That’s how draw a breath came to be.

However, it can also often be the case that some abstract semantic notion can be associated with the verb, something based in the original semantics . For example, the English verb take is widely used in collocation. take a bath, take a nap, take a breath, take a step, take a dump, take a break, etc., etc. The one thing expressions with take all have in common is that they are things that you can only do for yourself. With the productive take, there is often an invited inference that you are taking something because you want to have it (Don’t take any of the apples, please.) That would be an action that you do for yourself. But this is only an invited inference. In the take collocations that’s the only piece of the meaning (besides something like ’do’) that can be associated with the verb.

I suspect (but can’t prove) that the same is true of τήν ὅδον τέμνω; there is some semantic shadow associated with τέμνω. Looking at examples from Plato through II Tim, one could make the case that the shadow of τέμνω in this expression is that there is some difficulty associated with following the road/trail/path in question, and that would fit with the workman idea in the passage. (LSJ translates this usage as ‘make one’s way’, which has that notion of difficulty in it.)

That would make ὁρθοτομέω mean roughly ‘make one’s way along the correct road’ (assuming the ορθο- metaphor is right, which I think it is).

So then the question becomes, which metaphorical road is intended? LIFE IS A JOURNEY? or SPEAKING/LOGIC IS A JOURNEY?

As I noted before, LIFE IS A JOURNEY is well attested in both the NT and the LXX. It’s the metaphor in the passages Suzanne cited:
Proverbs 3:6
ἐν πάσαις ὁδοῖς σου γνώριζε αὐτήν
ἵνα ὀρθοτομῇ τὰς ὁδούς σου
ὁ δὲ πούς σου οὐ μὴ προσκόπτῃ

In all your ways make her known.
that she may make straight your ways,
[and your foot will not stumble] NETS

Proverbs 11:5
δικαιοσύνη ἀμώμους ὀρθοτομεῖ ὁδούς ἀσέβεια δὲ περιπίπτει ἀδικίᾳ

Righteousmess cuts out blameless paths
But impiety is beset with injustice NETS
although if I were translating just from the Greek, I’d go for something that emphasizes following a path more than making a path, say “he enables you to go the right way” if you insist on translating the metaphor. In fact I’d probably bail out on the metaphor entirely and say “He makes it possible for you to live a righteous life, and won’t set you up for a fall.” And for the Prov. 11:5 passage something more like "Being right in God's sight leads to an upright and blameless life." Not elegant English, but that's the general direction. I'll leave it for the Hebrew experts to say if such an interpretation is warranted.

What about SPEAKING/DISCUSSION IS A JOURNEY? It’s certainly around in Greek since the beginning. There’s a marvelous passage in Plato’s Protagoras in which Plato develops the DISCUSSION IS A JOURNEY metaphor fairly elaborately, and which also includes a use of the word τέμνω in the sense of ‘follow a road/trail/path’ and is cited in that sense in LSJ.
[337e] ἀξιώματος ἄξιον ἀποφήνασθαι, ἀλλ' ὥσπερ τοὺς φαυλοτάτους τῶν ἀνθρώπων διαφέρεσθαι ἀλλήλοις. ἐγὼ μὲν οὖν καὶ δέομαι καὶ συμβουλεύω, ὦ Πρωταγόρα τε καὶ Σώκρατες, συμβῆναι ὑμᾶς ὥσπερ ὑπὸ διαιτητῶν ἡμῶν συμβιβαζόντων [338a] εἰς τὸ μέσον, καὶ μήτε σὲ τὸ ἀκριβὲς τοῦτο εἶδος τῶν διαλόγων ζητεῖν τὸ κατὰ βραχὺ λίαν, εἰ μὴ ἡδὺ Πρωταγόρᾳ, ἀλλ' ἐφεῖναι καὶ χαλάσαι τὰς ἡνίας τοῖς λόγοις, ἵνα μεγαλοπρεπέστεροι καὶ εὐσχημονέστεροι ἡμῖν φαίνωνται, μήτ' αὖ Πρωταγόραν πάντα κάλων ἐκτείναντα, οὐρίᾳ ἐφέντα, φεύγειν εἰς τὸ πέλαγος τῶν λόγων ἀποκρύψαντα γῆν, ἀλλὰ μέσον τι ἀμφοτέρους τεμεῖν. ὣς οὖν ποιήσετε, καὶ πείθεσθέ μοι ῥαβδοῦχον καὶ ἐπιστάτην καὶ πρύτανιν ἐλέσθαι ὃς ὑμῖν

[337e] but should quarrel with each other like low churls. Now let me beg and advise you, Protagoras and Socrates, to come to terms arranged, as it were, under our arbitration: you, Socrates, must, not require that precise form [338a] of discussion with its extreme brevity, if it is disagreeable to Protagoras, but let the speeches have their head with a loose rein, that they may give us a more splendid and elegant impression; nor must you, Protagoras, let out full sail, as you run before the breeze, and so escape into the ocean of speech leaving the land nowhere in sight; rather, both of you must take a middle course. So you shall do as I say, and I strongly urge you to choose an umpire or supervisor or chairman
I'd argue that the general sense of II Tim. 2:15 all but demands an interpretation of SPEAKING/DISCUSSION IS A JOURNEY, since λόγος is the object of ὁρθοτομέω.
σπουδασον σεαυτον δοκιμον παραστησαι τω θεω εργατην ανεπαισχυντον ορθοτομουντα τον λογον της αληθειας
So the sense is "working your way through the Scripture understanding it correctly", or maybe better "teaching, step by step, the proper understanding of the Scripture". All in all that makes the GNB translation truer to the sense of the original than most translations.
Do your best to win full approval in God's sight, as a worker who is not ashamed of his work, one who correctly teaches the message of God's truth. GNB

PS LSJ gloss this phrase as: "teach it aright". I hope I've shown why that's a most credible translation.


At Sun Apr 09, 11:31:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...


Thanks for the thoughtful response.

After considering the options, I prefered to retain the accepted notion (not terribly adventurous of me, but there it is) that the verb fundamentally means to "teach" or "preach" the word, but thought that the underlying metaphor might affect how we understand the passage as a whole.

What tips the scales in the direction of 'teaching the true word' rather than 'living a righteous life' for me is still the word εργατης. Can you elaborate further on your transition from εργατης, the worker, to the notion of difficulty? I would associate εργατης with working as a skilled craftsman, crafting something as a skill or industry, creating or producing something for others.

The other pointer is δοκιμος, 'esteemed' or 'trustworthy', rather than 'righteous'. If the person is trustworthy, then it appears that they have been given a task to carry out for the sake of others, at least, I would infer that.

The overall context also points in the direction of Timothy as teacher of the word, although this must certainly entail living the righteous life. I have also toyed with the idea of seeing an echo of John the Baptist preparing the hearts of the people for Christ.

So I see the meaning as being about how one teaches. "Don't preach an extreme view on either side, but stick to the middle (straight and smooth) in your teaching, emphasize the central point, and don't cause others to stumble by bringing up and making a test of faith things that are tangential and disputed."

I agree with you wholeheartedley that we should ditch all notions of cutting/dividing, as well as the association with sharpness or precision. Thanks for explaining that so well.

At Mon Apr 10, 02:16:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Surely the noun form of "commit ... (2) ‘transfer, hand over’" is "committal" - at least in terms of being committed to an institution.

At Mon Apr 10, 11:44:00 PM, Blogger Richard A. Rhodes said...

The form committal should be the nominalization for the 'hand over' sense. But attempts at using it in nominalizing clauses sound truly weird.

??Our committal of John to Skidmore was painful for the whole family.

??John's committal (by us) to Skidmore was painful for the whole family.


Our committing John to Skidmore was painful for the whole family.

but notice that the of is missing, so this is a poss-ing construction and not a nominalization.

I don't really have the word committal in my vocabulary as usable outside of the adjective non-committal, which has to do with the 'promise' sense.

At Tue Apr 11, 09:31:00 AM, Blogger lingamish said...


You might want to add a reference in this post to your original discussion of the "Metaphors we live by" book.

I know we have been making a lot of the "worker" in this passage, but I think you can strengthen the DISCUSSION IS A JOURNEY argument by comparing this section to Paul's comments that immediately follow this in which almost all the errors that he lists involve speaking of some form.

Finally, you mention LOGON as object of the verb. I'd be curious about the postion of ERGATEN in this phrase. It is also accusative.

At Tue Apr 11, 01:22:00 PM, Blogger Richard A. Rhodes said...

Good point about the following verses.
The word εργατης is in the accusative because it is in apposition with the σεαυτον, the object of παραστησαι. This brings up a point about the wording of this verse that's worth a quick post.


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