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Word Study Dangers: Glosses and Definitions

In my previous entry in this series I noted the difference between a gloss and a definition. To review:

First, let me distinguish between a “gloss” and a “definition.” A “gloss” is a word or phrase proposed as a translation for a word in the source language. When a Greek student is taught that “pistis” means “faith” what he is learning is a “gloss.” Contrast that with the following from the Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains: “that which is completely believable—‘what can be fully believed, that which is worthy of belief, believable evidence, proof” [Louw, J. P., & Nida, E. A. (1996, c1989). Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament : Based on semantic domains (electronic ed. of the 2nd edition.) (Vol. 1, Page 370). New York: United Bible societies)]. While I could complain just a bit, the latter is a definition, rather than a mere gloss.

Two pitfalls that are related must be avoided. The first is trying to create a single definition for a word that covers the whole range of meaning of a word. Most words actually have clusters of meaning and sometimes these don’t even overlap. Native speakers naturally apply the precise definition of a word for the particular circumstances. In American English, for example, we have the word trunk, which may reference the trunk of an elephant, a trunk in which one packs clothes, the rear compartment of one’s car, the main torso of a person’s body, or the main shaft of a tree. In British English you have a boot that you put on your foot, or the boot of a car, which is the same as the American trunk. These definitions are related, but are better defined separately.

Now imagine how silly it would sound if someone reads me a passage about a tree, and then asks what the word trunk means in that passage, and I respond by reading the full list of definitions. Obviously the person asking wants the definition of trunk as it applies to trees, and that is the only definition to provide. Yet preachers regularly read a list of definitions from Webster’s (a favorite with American prechers), and proceed as though the congregation now understands the English word.

Let’s think about the process here. First there is a word in the source language. Translators carefully choose an English word whose meaning adequately expresses a similar meaning. The semantic range of the two words will not be equivalent, but they overlap adequately to provide a meaningul sense in the translation. Now an English speaking preacher or teaching comes along and reads the full list of definitions of the English word, each of which represents a range of meaning for that word. The result is not clarity, but rather a fog. Because the listeners have seen the dictionary consulted, they feel that they have a meaning, but were you to ask them precisely what that was, they wouldn’t know, or even worse, they might know something that was just not so.

The second is a kind of reverse of the above. In this case the preacher or teacher announces that the Greek word that we here have translated ____ actually means . . .” and then reads a list of glosses from the concordance or from a standard Greek lexicon. Again, only one of those meanings will be the center of the range of meaning.

I’m going to keep this entry short. Let me just conclude by restating the key factor in word studies: The result should be finding a working definition that fits precisely in the specific context.

Next: Word Study Dangers: Your Dependence on Scholars

4 comments to Word Study Dangers: Glosses and Definitions

  • Something I’ve heard, which is related to the second pitfall, is taking the derivation of the word and using that as a definition. I don’t have any examples at hand, but I’ve heard preachers take apart a Greek word, then base the sermon on the meaning of the pieces.

    This would be the equivalent to taking the English word “neighbor,” noting that it derives from an old German word meaning “nearby farm,” then insisting that to be a true neighbor, one must do some sort of farming.

  • Yes, that’s called the “etymological fallacy.” I think I’ll probably do a full post on that one. There’s also the “anti-etymological fallacy” (my term) by which I mean the notion that if one appeals to etymology one has committed the etymological fallacy.

    Unfortunately, I think the vast majority of appeals to etymology are fallacious, nonetheless.

  • Another problem with using glosses from standard Greek or Hebrew lexicons is that very often these glosses are in fact based very largely on existing translations, usually older ones. This is explicitly true of the glosses in Strong’s lexicon, which are a list of KJV renderings. But in practice it is very often true even of scholarly lexicons like BDAG. The problem comes when Bible students and preachers think that they have got closer to the meaning of a word by consulting a lexicon rather than a translation, or that a disputed rendering in a translation is confirmed by a lexicon. In practice this is more or less circular reasoning.

  • […] Continuing the series, Henry at Participatory Bible Study Blog outlines the difference between glosses, collections of glosses, and definitions in Word Study Dangers: Glosses and Definitions. […]