Glosses and Meanings

There’s one issue that comes up a lot in debates and always irks me. I was reading a blog this evening and got irked afresh.

It is the difference between a gloss and a meaning.

When translating from one language to another there is rarely a direct 1:1 conversion between words. Words have nuances, they apply to a range of situations. When you translate from one language to another you need to keep your translation short, so you pick a ‘nearby’ word. These picks become standardised and are used by most translators most of the time.

They are called glosses in the trade.

For example. Lets imagine that English didn’t have the word ‘tired’. How would you express the following sentences:

  • “I’m tired of your incessant nagging.”
  • “I’m tired of this wallpaper.”

I would say something like:

  • I’m exhausted by your incessant nagging.
  • I’m bored of this wallpaper.

So exhausted and bored can be used as stand-ins for tired. They are Glosses.

But a gloss isn’t the same as a meaning. We can’t say that tired means either ‘exhausted’, or ‘bored’. It means some combination of part of the meaning of these two words, with other nuances (possibly connected with sleep) besides.

As a translator, most words come with a package of glosses that are tried and true. If you’re translating a biblical text, for example, I’d expect you to use established glosses, or be able to justify in detail another word choice. Buy a linguistic reference and often you’ll get nothing but glosses. And this is where the problem lies.

Strongs Concodance and DictionaryMany folks get hold of a copy of, say, Strongs lexicon, look up words and think that what they’re reading is a definition. They think that the glosses are alternate meanings. And they pick the one that best expresses their needs.

Someone might say ‘Jesus says “this generation will not pass away”, but the greek word for generation also means “race” – Jesus is really saying that the Jews won’t pass away before …’ As usual this is as simplistic as it is wrong.

‘Genea’ (γενεα) has glosses including ‘generation’ and ‘race’, but they aren’t separate meanings. The meaning of ‘genea’ is some combination – it contains a sense of place and time and people, the criteria by which an identity is formed: a genea is an ‘us’. We can’t go around writing the full definition of a word when we translate, though, so we have to choose a single gloss.

The comment thread to this post is a great example of someone (Theological Discourse) simply not getting that ‘Happy’ and ‘Blessed’ are different glosses, not different meanings. You can just skip between the comments by TD and John Loftus to get the rather acrimonious gist. Incidentally I disagree with John Loftus’ analysis of Psalm 137 too, but that’s another story.


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7 responses to “Glosses and Meanings

  1. Incidentally I disagree with John Loftus’ analysis of Psalm 137 too, but that’s another story.

    Either that is a nasty tease, or cheap advertizing for Glosses and Meanings II, the sequel.
    Do tell !

    This post I will have to link as a reference tool when debating with people who do this sort of obfuscating in their exegesis. Thanx !

  2. ian

    @sabio, Thanks. I’ll post on it later.

  3. ian


    So all I meant by this was that I disagreed that the violent fantasy of the end of Psalm 137 in any way ‘refutes’ the inerrancy of the bible or casts aspersions on the character of its god.

    Psalm 137 is clearly a psalm of lamentation reflecting the desires and regrets of its author. There’s nothing in context that suggests this is a divinely provided sentiment.

    If you want examples of the god of the hebrew bible instigating genocide there are plenty of much better examples in the history books where the text says explicitly that god commanded the Israelites to commit genocide. Of course, there’s ways around those passages too. Check out this vile piece of justification if you can keep your stomach:

  4. atimetorend

    No, I cannot read that stuff and keep my stomach, it is exactly the family of teaching (and teachers) followed by the church I belonged to. I appreciate your point about the end of psalm 137, that has always been my take too.

  5. ian

    I’m sorry you had to go through that attr. Having not been involved in that kind of church, it does baffle me how folks can be so sociopathic and so convinced they are ‘salt’ and ‘light’.

    There are things I just don’t think I’ll ever understand about the dark underbelly of Christian thought.

  6. Pingback: Sunday Scriptures: The Source of Suffering | Irreducible Complexity

  7. atimetorend

    Your citing that particular web site and relating it to the “dark underbelly of Christian thought” provide a lot of encouragement to me, seriously thanks.

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