The etymological fallacy and translation of metaphor
Someone commits the etymological fallacy when they claim that a previous meaning of a word is its current meaning. The etymological route the meaning of a word has taken is often referred to as diachronic meaning, while current meaning is called synchronic meaning. Etymological meanings are interesting and often have some bearing on a word's current meaning. But they often are not the current meaning of a word. Dictionary (or lexicon) entries often do not adequately distinguish between previous meanings of a word and the primary current meaning of a word.
Metaphors and idioms semantically derive from more concrete meanings and create new figurative meanings from them. Such figures of speech have some kind of etymological connection (including recent semantic change for live metaphors) to the more concrete (or "literal") meanings from which they derived. But the figurative meaning is not the literal meaning in the case of metaphors, nor the combined total of the meaning of the individual parts of an idiom.
Many Bible versions typically have a mixture of literal meaning (or etymological meaning for recently coined metaphors) and some figurative meanings for translation of biblical figures of speech. In his book The Word of God In English, Leland Ryken promotes the idea of literally translating many of the biblical figures of speech. Dr. Ryken loves the figurative language of the Bible, as do I. Neither he nor I want any Bible translation to sound stylistically flat, devoid of the beauty of figurative language. But if we literally translate the Bible's figures of speech and our literal translations do not accurate convey their figurative meanings to readers of our translations, our translations for those readers are not accurate.
Current speakers most often use the current meanings for words as their primary meaning, unless a context indicates to them that a word is being used in some currently non-primary, such as figurative or obsolescing, meaning. Some, with a more classical education or who are well-versed in older literature of a language, will also know previous meanings of a word. For instance, some, but not many, current speakers of English know that the word "prevent" in the KJV currently means 'precede' in 1 Thess. 4:15:
For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive [and] remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep.I have often heard individuals preach from the KJV using the wrong meanings of some of its words, because they are not familiar with the meanings some of its words had at the time the KJV was translated. Someone could preach from 1 Thess. 4:15 that those of us who "remain" (that is, are still alive) will not hinder (a current meaning of "prevent") those who are "asleep" (a metaphor) from coming back to life. Their preaching would be sincere, but it would not be based on an accurate understanding of the word "prevent" as used in this KJV verse, which meant 'precede,' not 'hinder.'
Similarly, current speakers usually understand the word "son" to refer to the male offspring of someone. There is, however, a figurative use of the word "son" in Biblical Hebrew which is semantically extended from its 'male offspring' meaning to a meaning of 'one who has the characteristics of.' There are a number of references in the Hebrew Bible to "the sons of the prophets", including this one in 2 Kings 6:1:
And the sons of the prophets said unto Elisha, Behold now, the place where we dwell with thee is too strait for us. (KJV)Now, unless someone already knows that "sons of the prophets" does not refer to male offspring of the prophets, they will commit the etymological fallacy of understanding this Hebrew idiom in its semantically prior sense as 'male offspring.' These men who spoke to Elisha were not literally sons of the prophets. Rather, they were followers of the prophets. They were students who were training to become like the prophets. Today a number of Bible versions translate this Hebraic figurative meaning of the phrase "sons of", allowing users of those translations to immediately understand the figurative meaning.
We come, then, to specifics of the exchanges between Michael and myself. Michael correctly states in a comment to my preceding post:
Wayne, the Hebrew does not say "length of nose" in Ex. 34:6. There are three different senses for the word aph, and "nostril" is one of them. The other two senses are "face" and "anger." In the place you cite, it is clearly being used in the third sense, "anger." So it's really incorrect to say that the Hebrew word means "nose" here.Michael correctly notes that 'anger' is one of the meaning senses of Hebrew aph. Had I said that the Hebrew actually meant 'nose' in Ex. 34:6, I would have been wrong. It does not mean 'nose' in this verse. It refers only to anger. A critical question here, and it is an empirical one, is whether or not Hebrew aph in Ex. 34:6, meaning 'anger,' semantically derived from a body part metaphor built on the meaning 'nose.' The Hebrew lexicon HALOT (2001, p. 76) indicates that it did, citing a number of instances in the Hebrew Bible where constructions with the word for nose metaphorically referred to anger, e.g.
snootiness Ps 10:4; in anger there is heavy breathing through the nose and a fire burns inside Dt. 32:22, which is why the nose becomes the organ symbolic of anger.BDB (Brown-Driver-Briggs) supports the same understanding of Hebrew forms with aph 'nose' as having a metaphorical meaning of 'anger' in appropriate contexts.
All English Bible translators know that in the appropriate contexts aph refers to anger, not a literal nose. And no English Bible translators that I know of have translated aph with its semantically prior etymological sense of 'nose' in any English Bibles that I have checked, and properly so. Were they to have done so, they would have committed the etymological fallacy. But it is still likely that the figurative meaning of 'anger' derived from the Hebrew metaphor based on nose.
But many other body part metaphors are translated in Bible versions with their prior, concrete, "literal" (that is, non-figurative) meanings in a number of English Bible versions, including "the finger of God," "the arm of the Lord," "bowels," "heart," "head," "neck", "forehead," "the ears of the church," and many others. If literal translations of these metaphors accurately communicate their figurative meaning to current English speakers, they are accurate translations. If they do not, it would be well for English translators to put the metaphorical meaning in the translated text, as they did with the metaphor of 'anger' for 'nose' and leave etymological or literal meanings for a footnote.
I suggest that when literal translations of biblical metaphors do not accurately communicate the meaning of those metaphors, we are committing the etymological fallacy just as much as if we had translated Ex. 34:6 referring to nose, rather than anger. For those who object, I would suggest that Ex. 34:6 then also be translated with its non-figurative meaning, and that we teach the metaphorical meaning, as some say should be done for people to understand the literal translations of many other metaphors in the Bible.
Categories: etymology, etymological fallacy, metaphor, James Barr