My third rule of SWLT is this: context is king. You’ll understand this better if I give you a practical example.
Entries and sub-entries in dictionaries require multiple examples of use in multiple media by multiple people such that what the words MEAN becomes clear from what people say or write and that they use the words in a given sense because they are used to it, the way Maimonides was used to using nun-final verbs in legal material, but only when he wasn’t reporting on an actual case.
The Oxford English Dictionary FAQ says that they don’t add an entry until there are 10 years of accumulated evidence as to the MEANING, based on the contexts in which the word is used.
They reject words used randomly as evidence of a new meaning.
They reject a single individual’s attempt to give new meaning to a word. (This is actually a fallacy which will come up before I finish this section.)
They record a new sub-entry when it becomes clear that a word is used differently in different arenas such as in court or in scientific publications or in logic.
And they record sub-entries when it becomes obvious that the meaning of a word has changed over time, the context differing in the time-separated subcultures.
But there is another dimension to context as defining meaning.
It includes the setting which produced or used the text.
For example, there's the issue of “intent” in its legal meaning. When you hear a shooting case reported on radio or TV, you will frequently hear that the accused did not “intend” for the victim to get hurt. In US law that argument will never work. The definition of “intent” in US law is that a responsible adult foresees the results of actions and only takes those actions the results of which are intended. Anybody who behaves differently doesn’t belong out in public; nobody has a right to put the public at risk of the results of whims.
The setting also depends on the culture. Jewish law has a different definition of intent from American law.
And since cultures change over time, the setting that produces or uses text and the meaning in that setting depends on what year we are talking about, as well as what country we are in or what part of that country. That’s what I said when I discussed the meaning of “buxom” some time back.
So when the 19th century Brenton tried to translate a work from the 200s BCE that was supposed to translate material fixed in format by 400 BCE from a different culture that spoke a different language, it was a lost cause from the start because the Septuagint translators didn’t know what they were doing – and neither did Brenton as a translator.
Which leads into next week’s post.
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