The Evolution of Language

I found this discussion of the origin of the word "god" interesting when I read J.R.R. Tolkien's letters for the first time, and I repost it here for its inherent interest, and also to point out an all-too-common mistake that plagues exegetical preaching:

“…we do not know the original meaning of θέος or deus or god. We can, of course, make some guesses about the formation of these three quite distinct words, and then try to generalize a basic meaning from the senses shown by their relatives—but I do not think we shall necessarily by that way get any nearer to the idea ‘god’ at any actual moment in any language using one of these words. It is an odd fact that English dizzy (olim dysig) and giddy (olim gydig) seem related to θέος and god respectively. In English they once meant ‘irrational’, and now ‘vertiginous’, but that does not help much (except to cause us to reflect that there was a long past before θέος or god reached their forms or senses and equally queer changes may have gone on in unrecorded ages). We may, of course, guess that we have a remote effect of primitive ideas of ‘inspiration’ (to the 18th C[entury] an enthusiast was much what an Anglo-Saxon would have called a dysiga!). But that is not of much theological use? We are faced by endless minute parallels to the mystery of incarnation. Is not the idea of god ultimately independent of the ways by which a word for it has come to be? Whether through √dh(e)wes (which seems to refer basically to stirring and excitement); or √d(e)jew (which seems to refer basically to brightness (esp. of the sky)); or possibly (it is a mere guess) √ghew cry, —god is originally neuter and is supposed to ‘mean’ that which is invoked: an old past participle. Possibly a taboo-word. The old deiwos word (which produced d­­īvus, deus) survives only in Tuesday.

* Because a single word in human language…is a short-hand sign, & conventional. The fact that it is derived from a single facet, even if proved, does not prove that other facets were not equally present to the mind of the users of this conventional sign. The λόγος is ultimately independent of the verbum."

Many pastors and exegetes make the mistake of taking the meaning of a word's etymylogical root and importing it to the later word. But this is not how language works. One of the greatest examples of this (manifest in the Baptist church) is the assumption that because βαπτω carries the meaning "to dip" the derivative βαπτιζω must carry the same meaning. Therefore the only appropriate method of baptism is immersion or dipping.

To show the problem with this kind of reasoning let me give an example. Let's say my wife sends me a note saying, "You're cute." I, being the good exegete that I am, think about this note for a moment. "Hmmm. 'Cute' comes from an old informal variant of the word 'acute' meaning 'sharp or severe in effect', which itself comes from the Latin acus meaning needle. My wife must be trying to convey to me the idea that I bring her sharp and severe pain like a needle."

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