At my seminary, I often teach the introductory Greek course. On the first or second day of class, at least one student and I will have the following typical conversation during one of the breaks:
“Dr. Cara, is it not true that sin in the New Testament means ‘miss the mark’?”
“Well, not exactly,” I respond. “In the Bible, sin means to violate God’s law. Yes, it is true that the Greek word translated as ‘sin,’ hamartia, is a combination of ‘not’ and ‘mark,’ but that is not its meaning in the Bible.”
“I’m confused. I have been told by many people that the real meaning is ‘miss the mark.'”
“Many centuries before the New Testament was written, the word may have been coined based on someone throwing a spear and ‘missing the mark.’ But that is unrelated to the meaning of the word in the New Testament. In fact, emphasizing ‘missing the mark’ as the real meaning may confuse some into thinking that sin is only when one tries his best and fails—he tried to hit the mark but missed. If I may say so, you are confusing the history of a word and its possible original derivation with the meaning current during the New Testament period. You are committing what is called the ‘etymological fallacy,’ which we will cover later in the course.”
“Oh . . . next question: will predicate nominatives be on the quiz tomorrow?”
Before getting to some word-study fallacies, a brief summary of how words “work” is helpful. In general, individual words have a range of meanings or overlapping meanings (a “semantic range”). When a word is used in a context, the speaker/listener usually knows intuitively what part of the range of meaning is being used.
Let us use modern English as an example. Love is an English word with quite a broad range of overlapping meanings, but once seen in context, the specific meaning is quite obvious. Hence, most understand the following sentence even though love has five slightly different meanings. “I love God, my wife, my daughter, the New York Yankees, and Chicken McNuggets.” Another example: the noun key has several fairly defined meanings, one refers to a physical object (key in the door), another is a common metaphorical use (the key to victory), and another relates to music (the key of C). Rarely is one confused by these three options, although the depth of understanding of the more technical musical option would differ significantly between a pianist and me.
Therefore, a good word study will evaluate many contexts to determine the range of meanings and/or overlapping meanings available to the writer/speaker during a specific time period. This is the function of a dictionary. A good interpreter then takes the available range of meanings for a word and applies this to the context to get the proper specific meaning of the word in that context.
In modern linguistics, etymology is the study of the history of the word with an emphasis on its origin. This study of a word’s history often looks back through multiple languages. This is contrasted with the “meaning(s)” of a word, which is based on current usage. The etymological fallacy is to assume that the origin of a word is its true meaning. No, the true meaning of a word is its current usage. (The etymological fallacy is sometimes called the “root fallacy,” which says that the root [origin] of a word is its true meaning.)