A FEW WORDS ABOUT WORDS
Words studies are critically important and without them we're going nowhere. But living breathing dictionaries and linguists can be fooled as surely as the rest of us. John Stuart Mill, the famous logician, philosopher (and agnostic) said this: "Language is the depository of the accumulated experience to which all the former ages have contributed their part, and which is the inheritance of all yet to come. It may be good to alter the meaning of a word, but it is bad to let any part of the meaning drop...A generic term is always liable to become limited to a single species, if people have occasion to think and speak of that species much oftener than of anything else contained in the genus...The tide of custom first drifts the word on the shore of a particular meaning, then retires and leaves it there."
Try telling black or colored South Africans that the word "kaffir" used to be a perfectly harmless description of a cluster of peoples in a particular area of South Africa. The only thing it "means" now is a studied insult of another human being who is non-white.
The word "asylum" came to us through the Latin from the Greek asulon and meant a place of "refuge". No more! People began to use it of a place that catered mainly to "mentally ill" people and so the idea of refuge was lost (though not completely and it's making a comeback in light of political issues).
Our word "intoxicate" derives from the Greek toxikon to poison. From there it became the med. Latin intoxicare, impregnated or steeped in poison. In English it long meant to introduce poison, to kill or die by poison. With the passing of time, though the word toxic or toxin remains, it was used of people who had been made "ill" or distempered by booze. Today we'd hardly think of using it in any other way than "to make drunk or to inebriate by alcohol."
The word "booze" first meant "drink" (as distinct from, say, food or meat), but now it means only alcoholic drinks. Our word "coffee" is traced back to the Arabic quawah (Turkish kahveh) which Arabic scholars tell us was originally a wine drink. (Yes!)
The word "inebriate" is of disputed etymology but it was certainly used to mean "intoxicate" (as in our present use). It was also used as "saturate, fill, soak". Pliny speaks of grapes being soaked (inebriated) in their own juice and of soil overly irrigated and "inebriated" with water.
Our word "drunk" has a long, interesting and complex history but it once meant "drink". Our phrase "meat and drink" used to be "mete and drunc" with the letter u ducking and weaving in and out as the years passed.
Everyone knows what drunk means today besides being a cognate of "drink" but it didn't always means "inebriated through alcohol". It began, meaning to imbibe a liquid, simply to drink, then to drink or imbibe fully, abundantly. Then because people often drank booze abundantly and were inebriated, it took on the idea of intoxication. When people like Wycliffe and Tyndale used it, they used it in both senses. When they came across the Hebrew word [root] rwh (which means to satiate, water abundantly, soak or drench) they might render it "drunke" as Wycliffe did in Psalm 65 where he translates: "thou hast visitid the erthe and maad it drunke."
I could go on but perhaps I've said enough on this point. You're relieved, right?!
Let me say a word or two about language, poetry, figures and metaphors.
Languages begin simple and become more and more complex. Of course! Changing states call for different words to express the reality more precisely as it moves through those states. Whether it's an insect or a human, a flower, a fruit or a geological fault.
Though a number of wise instructors try to save us from them, many major fallacies continue to make the rounds even among scholars (who are brilliant in other areas). Here's one of them: the fallacy of numbers.
If a word occurs, say, 130 times and is used in a certain way 127 times and 3 times in a different way, we're often assured that the "true" meaning of the word is how it is used most often.
In a given text a word means what the writer intends it to mean.
A biblical illustration. The Hebrew word [root] "brk" is used a host of times in the OT. It means "to bless, to praise, to speak prosperity on someone, to express thanks" and so forth. On at last four occasions I can think of, it means "to curse". Job's wife tells him to "curse"(brk) God and die but Job "blesses" (brk) God. Jezebel accuses poor Naboth of "blaspheming"—KJV) (brk) God in 1 Kings 21:10.
To say the word brk "really" means to bless and to use it to mean "curse" is not the "proper" meaning of the word is untrue! Now and then you might hear a very articulate person in a moment of frustration, because he can't find what he's looking for, you might hear him say, "Where's that blessed screwdriver?"
To say, "I've been through the use of brk and it means 'to bless' in all of its uses except these four, therefore these are not the "proper" meaning of the word" —that's silly.
The Hebrew word "succoth" means a booth and usually denotes a non-stable structure. But we come across it as a place name, a town. It's nonsense to say, "Yes, it can be used of a place but it's proper meaning is booth." It's "proper" meaning in those places is a place name!
The word "water" (depending on where people live) will be used most often to "mean" (indicate as the sensory referent) salt or fresh (non-salt) water. Those living on small islands might use it to refer to "salt water" most often. Imagine that they use the word fifty times in a day referring to the sea and twice to what they're going to drink. It is untrue to say because they use it most frequently of salt water that that's the true meaning while drinking water is some kind of begrudged, figurative, improper or non-normal meaning.
This is true of all generic words. At home in Ireland the word "man" almost always refers to a fellow-Irish man but though this is true, nobody dreams that the word means an Irishman! Or that it ever in its past history meant only an Irishman.
Our word "wine" comes to us from the Greek "oine" (vine) through the old Latin "vinum" and from there we get many forms until we get "wine". The word "wine" relates the liquid to its source, the vine! It is the (grape) vine product. What comes from a vine was called wine because it came from a vine!
But by and by "vinum" wasn't enough. What do you call "vinum" before it ferments? When it's new? If you spoke Latin you called it "new" vinum from "mustus" which meant "new, fresh". From there we got "mustum" which speaks of unfermented vinum. (Sometimes, the new vinum begins to ferment and in that state it's also called "mustum". That's legitimate usage though it is much less frequent. Compare gleukos in Job 32:19 where the sweet unfermented wine is allowed to begin to ferment.)
We have what J.S. Mill so aptly described for us above, what was generic, (grape) vine juice (vinum) had to be differentiated terminologically because of its different states and peoples" differing experiences. There was new, old, fresh, boiled, fermented, unfermented, mixed, unmixed, spoilt, soured—wine! It was all wine. And different languages used different words to speak of wine in various states though they retained generics such as "yayin." "oinos," "vinum," and "wine".
(Wine) vinegar is wine that has soured. Boiled wine is wine that has been boiled. Fermented wine is wine that had undergone fermentation. Fermenting wine is wine that is undergoing fermentation. Alcoholic wine is wine with alcoholic content. Fresh wine is wine just recently expressed.
That the word wine is used almost exclusively today for alcoholic wine doesn't mean it was always so restricted. Unfermented wine is really "wine".
A word or two on poetry and metaphors and other figures of speech.
When Jesus says, "I am the door!" he is using a metaphor. He doesn't mean he is a literal or physical door. Obviously! But that doesn't mean the word "door" has lost its normal significance. We depend on the customary use of the word in that sentence to get his point. "I am the bread of life" depends on the established meaning of "bread" to express his point. "I am the water of life" must retain the customary meaning of "water" to make sense.
To say "water" and "bread" and 'door" are used metaphorically here is true, but it is not true that the normal meaning of these words has been obscured much less dropped. More broadly, moving to poetry, let me ask you to think about this. Unless the poet uses words in an established way he/she can make no sense! A poet makes a special use of words not by destroying the customary or established meaning of words, but by using that established sense in an unusual way to make his point. An illustration will help.
The first book I picked up was Robert Browning's. Here's a piece from: "Love Among the Ruins":
Where the quiet-coloured end of evening
Miles and miles
On the solitary pastures where our sheep
Tinkle homeward thro" the twilight, stray or
As they crop—
Was the site once of a city great and gay,
(So they say)
Of our country's very capital, its prince
Held his courts in, gathered councils, wielding
Peace or war.
We'd say that was poetry, right? Let me zero in on the first line. The "evening" is described as having a "quiet-coloured end" and of "smiling" for miles and miles over pasture land where sheep are pastured. We'll hardly get more poetic than that. And it makes perfect sense! What's more, it makes perfect sense by using the words in their established senses!
Everyone knows that an "evening" doesn't smile. How do we know that? Because we know what the word "evening" means and we know what the word "smile" means. The poet depends on the established meaning of the words in his text to create his lovely picture. This evening has a "quiet-colored" end. We know what "quiet" and "colored" mean. We know what "end" means. Every word has its established, normal meaning. You can't understand the poetry without its using words in their normal way.
Put them together and you have a lovely, colorful (but not glaringly colorful) conclusion to an evening while sheep wander home, half-sleeping, with their bells tinkling.
I perhaps should have said at the beginning that the word meaning itself doesn't always mean the same thing.
(To be continued perhaps.)