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Interesting Etymologies 48 : The Bible

"Hello again Word Lovers!"

In this episode we are taking a slight deviation from etymology and we are going to look at translation and the words we choose when translation, and the text we are going to take as an example is The Bible, New and Old Testaments.

The New Testament does not give us many rare words, but it does provide us with one particular expression, or idiom "daily bread" which might mean 'bread for tomorrow' and is not found anywhere else, and that is a complication as we have nothing to compare it with.

The Old Testament provides us with plenty of words that do have comparisons to be made, but there are hundreds of words that do not occur anywhere else in Hebrew literature, so the mystery of their true meaning may never be resolved. Words for which we have only one source are known as Hapax Legomena (Greek) Hapax - once + passive participle of Legein - to say (Said Once).

Formal v Dynamic equivalence in translation

So when translating, there are some technical terms to consider. Do we want our translation to be a Formal or Dynamic equivalence. This can be understood as an attempt to retain faithfulness to the original language structure while dynamic tends to aim for a more natural rendering with less literal accuracy. This is often simplified as Faithful v Beautiful. A translation can be faithful to the original language use or beautiful in the target language.

A "recent" example, which became infamous in Spain was the speech of Anna Botella, the former Mayor of Madrid, when she made a speech for the Madrid bid for the 2020 Olympic games. Despite her linguistic difficulties, she made her speech in English and invited the committee to "come and enjoy a relaxing cup of café con leche in Plaza Mayor". Despite the ridicule she received Charly feels this was a legitimate "formal" equivalence. He argues café con leche is NOT white coffee or coffee with milk, people do not say coffee with milk in English but café con leche is not the same as white coffee.

An example from The Bible could be found in the commandment "Thou Shalt Not Kill!" in the King James Version (KJV) using thou from Old English. The King James wording is still kept in use by those who quote The Bible. The KJV is considered a great work of English literature and the respect shown to the language is probably deserved. It gives it a sense of historical and biblical style, an air of authority, elevating the messaging beyond everyday language. "Thou shalt not kill" could be dynamically translated as "you shouldn't kill", "Don't kill", or the verb kill could be replaced with murder.

The formal and dynamic struggle was something that King Alfred the Great wrestled with when he was attempting to provide a translation of Cura Pastoralis (The Shepherds Book) from Latin into English. He is quoted in his guidance for translation of the work as "sometimes word for word [Formal] and sometimes meaning for meaning [Dynamic]."

"Our mouth is open to you" - Corinthians 6:11

This expression doesn't really mean anything in English but what is it supposed to mean? The New Revised Standard Version of The Bible translates it as "We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians" which seems like a good interpretation.

The various translations of the quote can be compared here.

"Truly, I say to you(,) today(,) you will be with me in Paradise" - Luke 23:43

This is an example of the importance of punctuation in translation, which is an area we have not investigated previously as it is not technically part of the area of study of etymology. The context of this quote is important to understand the meaning, Jesus makes this statement to one of the criminals on the cross either side of him. The individual asks for forgiveness of Jesus and demonstrates his faith, Jesus rewards him with a literal, not an eventual promise of salvation in heaven on that day.

The major translations of The Bible all insert the comma before today, so all agree that Jesus was speaking of the time the thief would enter paradise. Furthermore, the phrase "I tell you the truth" is attributed to Jesus 76 times in the New Testament, often precedes key and important statements and no other voice is quoted using it.

The Jehovah's Witness translation was where the comma was moved due to their belief that the dead are not "conscious" so the interpretation is that Jesus was providing truth on that day, not a promise of an outcome on that day.

The various translations of the quote can be compared here.

There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard - Psalms 19:3

So the question is what does this mean? It means there are no uttered words, there is no audible voice. Many of the translations say simply "their voices can't be heard" and the New Revised Standard Version states "There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard"

The various translations of the quote can be compared here.

"And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" - Matthew 16:18

This is actually a pun by Jesus. This is a hot take from Charly, undoubtedly, but there is certainly a possibility that Jesus did enjoy word games. Peter means rock, in Latin; petra - rock

The various translations of the quote can be compared here.

"Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel" - Isaiah 7:14

Immanu'el literally means "God is with us" immanu - with us im - with + first person plural pronominal suffix + El - God. This is clearly significant as the word is in the text and the meaning of the word is a significant message.

Dumb - AS we use this word today it probably means stupid or not intelligent, although the base meaning is mute, unable to speak, in that use an intelligent person could well be dumb. Proto-Germanic dumbaz - dumb, dull. Perhaps PIE dheubh - confusion, stupefaction, dizziness. Root dheu - dust, mist, vapour, smoke. This word could cause offence with younger readers if they are not aware of the earlier/archaic meaning.

Once upon a time - Genesis 11.1

In the New English Version the story of the Tower of Babel opens wit the phrase "once upon a time" which is used in English to open a fictional story. Virtually all other versions use a derivative of the phrase "at that time" or "at one time" or a more prosaic opening of "now". It seems the New English Version has perhaps used the expression without considering the impact that a phrase used to open fairy tales might have on some readers interpretation.

The various translations can be compared here.

And he said unto them, When I sent you without purse, and scrip, and shoes, lacked ye any thing? And they said, Nothing. - Luke 22:35

This is an interesting quote as there is a debate as to whether they respond by saying the word "nothing" or they said nothing in response. The Berean Study Bible quote is '"Nothing," they answered.'

Thou shalt not covet - Exodus 20:17

The word covet can be traced to a Hebrew word that has two potential meanings, or more accurately, it emerges from a root which offers two different directions. It can be used to mean to desire or to take. So does it mean you shouldn't dream of stealing things or you shouldn't steal things?

The year of the horn

In Hebrew this is the yobhel which means the literal ram's horn but through Latin it emerges as the word jubilee. In the Jewish culture a Jubilee (every twenty years) was the close of a seven year cycle which saw debts forgiven and slaves freed.


The issue of the virgin birth is one of the deep issues of theological debate, but it could perhaps be argued that the translation has been misinterpreted. An English word, Maid, meaning girl as it actually means unmarried woman. Understanding that sexual engagement does not happen prior to marriage the meaning has been inferred that a maid is a virgin. The PIE root maghu meant youngster or child, which even existed in Old English to refer to boys or girls, and in Old Irish as "slave".

Maiden holds a meaning of unbroken or untried. Maiden Voyage for the first journey, Maiden Over for a session of bowling without score in cricket. Also see Maidenhead = Middle English maidehede - celibacy, virginity, literally "maid-hood".

In German the word jungfräuliche is subject to the same lack of clarity. Jungen to mean young, Frau to mean woman. But alternative meanings are Virgin, Maiden and an archaic use for the star constellation Virgo. Der jungfäuliche Schnee means unspoiled snow.

When we see this uncertainty, perhaps the word virgin should have been taken to mean "young woman" or "unmarried woman" or an actual virgin?

The Lord is my Shepherd

This is a fascinating translation, the use of the word shepherd is seemingly obvious but the Aramaic word for shepherd is raá from the Semitic root which expresses the idea of a deep passion. It could be "mighty", "royal", "fierce" - The Lord is my Man of War has a very different ring to it.

Locusts & Honey

John the Baptist ate locusts and honey? Really? Perhaps the word translated as locust could actually mean a sort of pancake. The word for locusts in Greek is Akrides. The word for pancake is Egkrides. Pancakes go much better with honey than locusts.

40 days and 40 nights

The Jewish word translated as forty was often a word used for a large quantity, or in terms of time a "long time". Much like the Roman use of sescenti to mean a large number, not just 600.

A camel and the eye of a needle

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” (Matt.19:24.). Possibly one of the most well known Bible quotes. The eye of a needle is often used as an expression to mean a narrow or tight space, frequently employed in the Talmud in such a way. It has been argued that camel could be a problematic translation that should be understood to mean "rope". There is a popular understanding that the phrase referred to a gate to the city of Jerusalem which was difficult to enter if your camel was well loaded, but this is simply not true.

If people despair of the complication of trying to decipher the meaning of words in The Bible, it is worth remembering the Vedic texts were being scrutinised by etymologists before The Bible was even written. (IE44 Etymologists)

Explore the full Interesting Etymologies series archive here

As well as being the host of our Interesting Etymologies series, Charly Taylor is a stand up comedian and author. His latest offering is available now:

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