"We demolish arguments and every pretension
  that sets itself up against the knowledge of God."
2 Corinthians 10:5

Competing for the "Worst Etymological Fallacy" Award?

Arguments from the Bottom of the Etymological Fallacies Pit

My main reason for writing this article is the following outrageous statement propagated by Shibli Zaman:

The crumbs that fall from the master’s table

Now to tie this all in to my initial childhood trauma regarding dog food commercials, in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke we find a story of a Canaanite woman who begged Christ to heal her demon-possessed daughter. After Christ initially shunning this Gentile woman with silence, his disciples asked him to shoo her away. Christ obliged them telling her, "I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel." Then the English text of the Gospels says, "Then came she and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me." It is interesting to note that in the Greek text the word for "worshipped" here is "proskuneo" which is a contraction of "pros" meaning to "be in the manner of" and "kuneo" (root "kuon") which is basically a dog. How the Biblical translators understood groveling like a dog to be "worshipping" is dogmatically baffling to say the least. To this groveling, Christ only reiterates his original standpoint saying, "It is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it to dogs." The Greek word for "dogs" in this verse is "kunarion" which is the diminutive of "dog" from the same root as the word translated as "worship". Honestly, I don’t know about the behavior of dogs in early 17th century England, but I, myself, have never seen a dog pray.

(Source: Shibli Zaman, Stung from the Same Hole Twice: Muslim-America’s Precarious Courtship with Bush and the Republican Party, 11/24/2002)

Even a childhood trauma is no excuse for this kind of ridicule of things most sacred to Christians, like the Holy Scriptures and the worship of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Zaman's topic is the voting behavior of Muslims in the most recent US elections, and he presents thoughts about future strategies so that Muslims may increase their influence in America. Taking a stab at the Bible in this context appears to point to an insatiable desire to attack the Christian faith even when talking about issues that are completely unrelated to Christianity.

The first lesson any linguist or serious language student has to learn is that the meaning of a word is determined by usage not by etymology (let alone false etymology as in this case).

Despite the mockery that Zaman directs at them, the translators of the King James Version (KJV, first published in 1611) were recognized scholars of Greek in their time. They were not making up imaginary translations. Zaman should have researched his claims better instead of just assuming that the results of his armchair etymology are an established fact.

One of the most authoritative and most detailed dictionaries on the Greek language is readily available online and tells us about the word proskuneo:

prosku^n-eô [list of grammatical forms omitted] :-- 1. make obeisance to the gods or their images, fall down and worship, ... 2. esp. of the Oriental fashion of prostrating oneself before kings and superiors, ... (Orig. perh. throw a kiss to the god, ...)
(Source: Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, revised and augmented throughout by Sir Henry Stuart Jones with the assistance of Roderick McKenzie, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1940; the above excerpt is quoted from the online edition)

The first and main meaning given for the word as it occurs in ancient (pagan) Greek texts is the worship of gods. On the other hand, the dogs fancied by Zaman are not mentioned at all in the dictionary entry.

Let us turn to the Septuagint (LXX), the translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into the Greek language by Jewish Rabbis about two centuries before Christ. In the LXX, the Greek verb "proskuneo" translates the Hebrew verb "hishtachaweh" approximately 175 times; it is used with respect to the "worship" of God (or the Lord) or of pagan gods approximately 108 times: [Gen 22:5; 24:26; 24:48; 24:52; Exo 4:31; 12:27; 24:1; 32:8; 33:10; 34:8; 34:14; Deu 4:19; 8:19; 11:16; 17:3; 26:10; 29:25; 30:17; Jdg 7:15; 1Sa 1:3; 1:19; 15:25; 15:30; 15:31; 2Sa 12:20; 15:32; 1Ki 9:6; 9:9; 16:31; 22:54; 2Ki 5:18; 17:16; 17:36; 18:22; 19:37; 21:3; 21:21; 1Ch 16:29; 7:3; 7:19; 2Ch 7:22; 20:18; 29:28; 29:29; 29:30; 32:12; 33:3; Neh 8:6; 9:3; 9:6; Psa 5:8; 21:28; 21:30; 28:2; 65:4; 80:10; 85:9; 94:6; 95:9; 96:7; 98:5; 98:9; 105:19; 131:7; 137:2; Job 1:20; Mic 5:12; Zep 1:5; 2:11; Zec 14:16; 14:17; Isa 2:8; 2:20; 27:13; 37:38; 44:15; 44:17; 46:6; 49:7; 66:23; Jer 1:16; 8:2; 13:10; 16:11; 22:9; 25:6; 33:2; Eze 8:16; 46:2; 46:3; 46:9; Dan 3:5; 3:6; 3:7; 3:10; 3:11; 3:12; 3:14; 3:15; 3:18; 3:95 (LXX, 3:28 Heb)]. The other instances mainly involve showing homage or respect for a person of superior cultural rank (Gen 19:1; 23:7, 12; 27:29, etc.).

For a detailed discussion of the use of the word proskuneo in the New Testament see this article on Worship of the Lord Jesus. In the following I want to present just a couple of pertinent examples:

Jesus said to him, "Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship (proskuneeseis) the Lord your God, and serve him only.’" (Matthew 4:10, NIV)

So when Peter came in, Cornelius met him, fell at his feet, and worshiped him (prosekuneesen). But Peter helped him up, saying, "Stand up, I too am only a man." (Acts 10:25-26, NET Bible)

Then the angel said to me, "Write: ‘Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!’" And he added, "These are the true words of God." At this I fell at his feet to worship him (proskunesai autoo). But he said to me, "Do not do it! I am a fellow servant with you and with your brothers who hold to the testimony of Jesus. Worship God! (too theoo proskuneeson) For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy." (Revelation 19:9-10, NIV)

I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things. And when I had heard and seen them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who had been showing them to me. But he said to me, "Do not do it! I am a fellow servant with you and with your brothers the prophets and of all who keep the words of this book. Worship God! (too theoo proskuneeson)" (Revelation 22:8-9, NIV)

In these verses, the act of proskuneo is to be given to God, and it is refused by the Apostles and the angels. This shows without doubt that the word CAN and regularly DOES refer to the worship due to God alone.

Zaman's statement, "It is interesting to note that in the Greek text the word for ‘worshipped’ here is ‘proskuneo’ ...", gives the impression that a rare and strange word is used in this passage, that the meaning of this word is either open to debate or it usually means something completely different, and because of the root meaning of this word, Zaman is baffled how on earth the translators ever got the idea to translate it here as "worshipped".

Nothing could be further from the truth. The term proskuneo is a very common if not the main word used for worship in both the Greek Old and New Testaments. (The verb is used 60 times in the Greek New Testament.)

In the above, I have offered plenty of sources and references, Zaman has offered none to support his claims. If he wants to maintain this theory, it is now his turn to produce biblical or pagan references in which proskuneo denotes the behaviour of dogs. To my knowledge, neither the biblical nor classical Greek sources support such an idea. Certainly it was not in the mind of the gospel writers, the context does not allow it.

So far I have referred mainly to Liddell and Scott, because it is not only a standard reference but also readily available online, and thus there is no excuse at all that the author has not consulted this reference before making such unscholarly and irresponsible claims.

Liddell and Scott's dictionary retains its importance to this day because of the fact that they were classical Greek scholars and drew on a wide range of extra-biblical materials in compiling their lexicon. However, their work has now been superseded by the third edition of the BDAG (which draws on their work). The bibliographic reference is: Frederick William Danker (editor), A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature - 3rd Edition (BDAG), Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. It is an absolutely massive tome and valuable because for each entry it traces its uses not only in the NT but in (a) earlier Greek materials; (b) contemporary Greek literature; (c) later Christian writings. In short, if anyone wants to see where a Greek word comes from and more importantly, how it was used in the first-century outside the NT, the BDAG is the book to consult. Regarding the word proskuneo it states:

proskuneo (kuneo ‘to kiss’)
... (... Frequently used to designate the custom of prostrating oneself before persons and kissing their feet or the hem of their garment, the ground etc.; ...) to express in attitude or gesture one's complete dependence upon or submission to a high authority figure, (fall down and) worship, do obeisance to, prostrate oneself before, do reverence to, welcome respectfully, ... (p. 882)

Again, no link at all to dogs, rather BDAG identifies the word as a compound of the preposition ‘pros’ with the verb ‘kuneo’ (= kiss).

The following quotations are taken from Johanns P. Louw & Eugene A. Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, Volume 1 (United Bible Societies, New York 1988, 1989). In entry 53.56 for proskuneo, the authors write:

... to express by attitude and possibly by position one's allegiance to and regard for deity - ‘to prostrate oneself in worship, to bow down and worship, to worship.’ eidomen gar autou ton astera en tee anatole kai eelthomen proskunesai auto ‘for we saw his star in the east and we came to worship him’ Mt 2.2. (p. 540)

They also have a note which states that

7 proskuneo appears to differ somewhat in meaning from seBomai, seBazomai, and euseBeo, ‘to worship’ (53.53) in emphasizing more the semantic component of position or attitude involved in worship. (Ibid.)

In their entry 53.57, under proskuneetees, they write:

... (derivative of proskuneo ‘to worship,’ 53.56) one who worships - ‘worshiper.’ hote hoi alethinoi proskuneetai proskuneesousin to patri en pneumati kai aletheia ‘when the real worshiper will worship the Father in spirit and in truth’ Jn 4:23.

The Greek word proskuneo ordinarily means "among Orientals, esp. Persians, to fall upon the knees and touch the ground with the forehead as an expression of profound reverence" (Thayer's Lexicon, No. 548).

The Hebrew word "hishtachaweh" has the same meaning.
Is this not also what Muslims do when they worship Allah?
Is Zaman thinking he is "groveling like a dog" when he worships his God?

[Note: Thayer's Lexicon is a popular "layman's tool", but rather out-dated and not considered authoritative by scholars. I only quoted from it because of the nice formulation it provided in this case. The meaning of the word was already established through the above quotations from scholarly references.]

Had Zaman consulted some modern scholarly translations of the Bible, or a good Bible commentary, or asked any knowledgeable Christian about this before publishing such nonsense, he could have saved himself this embarrassment. Even though "worship" is regularly the meaning of proskuneo in the Old and the New Testament, and not an odd imagination of the KJV translators, is it really the most appropriate translation in this particular instance? Let me quote this verse together with its footnote, as rendered in the NET Bible:

But she came and bowed down7 before him and said, "Lord, help me!"   (Matthew 15:25, NET Bible)

7 In this context the verb proskunew, which often describes worship, probably means simply bowing down to the ground in an act of reverence or supplication.

To gain a proper understanding of the passage about Jesus and the Canaanite woman the reader should consult a good scholarly Bible commentary. A detailed exegesis of this text is not our topic here. [Some of my personal thoughts about Matthew 15 can be found in this article.]

Let's now turn to Zaman's atrocious etymology and examine it in detail:

Then the English text of the Gospels says, "Then came she and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me." It is interesting to note that in the Greek text the word for "worshipped" here is "proskuneo" which is a contraction of "pros" meaning to "be in the manner of" and "kuneo" (root "kuon") which is basically a dog.

Not at all!   First, pros-kuneo is a compound of two words, not a contraction. Second, pros is not a verb and does not mean "to be in the manner of", but a preposition best translated as "towards". The basic usage is "in the direction of" (BDAG, pp. 873-875). Wallace (Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996; the standard advanced text book on undergraduate courses) lists six basic uses (p. 380):

  1. Purpose (for, for the purpose of)
  2. Spatial (toward)
  3. Temporal (toward, for (duration))
  4. Result (so that, with the result that)
  5. Opposition (against)
  6. Association (with, in company with)

Zaman is utterly wrong. Indeed, he is so far off the map one has to wonder where he got this whole idea from.

Third, kuneo is a verb meaning "to kiss", not "a dog". Fourth, the root of kuneo is "kus" not "kuon" and has nothing at all to do with a dog.

Zaman would only have had to consult the already mentioned and readily available Greek-English Lexicon by Liddell & Scott which states:

ku^neô :-- kiss, ... of pigeons, bill

The usage of the verb kuneo is documented mostly for kissing of the head (kephale), the hand (cheir), or kissing the ground (arouran, one's native soil, after many years of absence from home). Again, dogs are not mentioned in the entry, and particularly the use of this word also for pigeons and their way of billing ("kissing"), shows that it has nothing at all to do with (the groveling of) dogs. Furthermore, my copy of Wilhelm Gemoll's Greek-German dictionary (Griechisch-Deutsches Schul- und Handwörterbuch) gives not only the meaning (kiss), but also provides explicit information about the construction of the word: kuneo, contracted from ku-ne-so, root: kus, the root form being best seen in some of the aorist forms: ekussa, kus(s)a.

Still, proskuneo doesn't mean ‘kiss towards’ but prostrate, make obeisance, worship. In this case and in most cases, even if you get the etymology right, this still doesn't get the meaning right. To investigate the meaning of a word, look at how it is used. Its history is amusing and might educate us in interesting ways, but is not a reliable source of evidence on its present meaning.

Etymology has its valid place in linguistic research, but the saying "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing" seems to be particularly true for the field of etymology since it is so easily abused. Yes, the two words kuneo and kuon look similar, but in nearly all languages there exist similar looking words that are not related. More about this shortly.

Zaman finishes his little ‘exegetical nugget’ with the punchline:

"Honestly, I don’t know about the behavior of dogs in early 17th century England, but I, myself, have never seen a dog pray."

Now, I haven't seen any praying dogs either, and I have no intention to promote such a theory. It is, however, rather strange to find Zaman making such a statement. After all, he believes in Talking Ants, even though he has never heard an ant talk. Furthermore, in Surah 27 the Qur'an presents us with a hoopoe bird reporting about the right and wrong practice of worship:

  1. And he sought among the birds and said: How is it that I see not the hoopoe, or is he among the absent?
  2. I verily will punish him with hard punishment or I verily will slay him, or he verily shall bring me a plain excuse.
  3. But he was not long in coming, and he said: I have found out (a thing) that thou apprehendest not, and I come unto thee from Sheba with sure tidings.
  4. Lo! I found a woman ruling over them, and she hath been given (abundance) of all things, and hers is a mighty throne.
  5. I found her and her people worshipping the sun instead of Allah; and Satan maketh their works fairseeming unto them, and debarreth them from the way (of Truth), so that they go not aright;
  6. So that they worship not Allah, Who bringeth forth the hidden in the heavens and the earth, and knoweth what ye hide and what ye proclaim,
  7. Allah; there is no God save Him, the Lord of the Tremendous Throne.

Does Zaman want to tell us that a bird that knows the right worship of Allah will not also worship him correctly? Particularly, when the Qur'an states explicitly:

Seest thou not that to Allah bow down in worship ALL things that are in the heavens and on earth, - the sun, the moon, the stars; the hills, the trees, the animals; and a great number among mankind? ... (Surah 22:18)

The Arabic term translated as "bow down in worship" is the word "sujud" which means exactly the prostration before God that is expressed by the Greek word proskuneo which Zaman chose to make the object of his mockery. Certainly dogs are animals and included in "all things" which bow down in worship to Allah according to the Qur'an.

Not only was Zaman's ridicule of Christianity utterly inappropriate, and the etymology presented by him unscholarly and embarrassingly wrong, but from an Islamic perspective Zaman's mocking conclusion constitutes kufr (unbelief) since he is denying what the Qur'an definitely affirms.

Putting it differently: Was it not common sense that made Zaman reject the idea of "praying dogs"? Recognizing that the Qur'an demands Muslims to believe in worshipping dogs, it remains to be seen whether Zaman will choose to abandon the Qur'an or his common sense.


For the purpose of determining the meaning of a word in the New Testament (1st Century AD) it would be equally wrong to point to the way the word is used in the current 21st Century AD as it is to look for its "original meaning" in perhaps the 8th Century BC (cf. the article Languages are NOT stagnant!). The New Testament meaning of proskuneo was established in the references given above. Nevertheless, it is still interesting and somewhat ironical to observe that the Muslim translation of the Qur'an into modern Greek, ΤΟ ΙΕΡΟ ΚΟΡΑΝΙΟ, published in Saudi Arabia in 1998, often uses the verb proskuneo to render the Arabic verb for prostrating. Obviously the Muslim translators didn't think there was any problem with this word. The word is used in the Qur'an in the very same way as in the New Testament, i.e. denoting prostration before deity as an expression of a believer's worship. In the following I will give only a few of many examples:

  English (Pickthall or Yusuf Ali) Greek (Το Ιερο Κορανιο) Transliterated Arabic
22:77   O ye who believe! Bow down and prostrate yourselves, and worship your Lord, and do good, that haply ye may prosper. Ya ayyuha allatheena amanoo irkaAAoo waosjudoo waoAAbudoo rabbakum waifAAaloo alkhayra laAAallakum tuflihoona
25:60 And when it is said unto them: Adore the Beneficent! they say: And what is the Beneficent? Are we to adore whatever thou (Muhammad) biddest us? And it increaseth aversion in them. Wa-itha qeela lahumu osjudoo lilrrahmani qaloo wama alrrahmanu anasjudu lima ta/muruna wazadahum nufooran
76:26 And part of the night, prostrate thyself to Him; and glorify Him a long night through. Wamina allayli faosjud lahu wasabbihhu laylan taweelan
96:19 Nay, heed him not: But bow down in adoration, and bring thyself the closer (to Allah)! Kalla la tutiAAhu waosjud waiqtarib

Does Zaman want to suggest that the Muslim translators of the Qur'an deliberately chose a Greek word that means "groveling like a dog" because this is indeed the most appropriate Greek rendering for the Islamic expression of prayer and worship?

Linguistic Principles

Before examining further specific examples of Shibli Zaman's etymological ‘scholarship’, it will be helpful for future discussions to first establish some general and foundational principles.

It is absolutely crucial to understand this linguistic point: A word is a combination of meaning, phonological form, and grammatical features. Meaning lies not in the word (alone) but the meaning is determined by the place of the word in the sentence and even in the wider context in which it is used. The ‘etymological fallacy’ is one of the most basic linguistic mistakes. The classic student example in English is that of the word ‘nice’ that once meant ‘stupid’ or ‘simple’ but now means ‘pleasant’. (Cf., The Collins Concise Dictionary [Glasgow: HarperCollins, 1995] which has under its entry for ‘nice’ the following: "... (obsolete) A. foolish or ignorant. B. delicate. C. shy; modest. D. wanton" [p. 899]. It traces this latter and old use of ‘nice’ to the Latin nescius, from nescire ‘to be ignorant’.) In short, ‘John is nice’ would once have been an insult, now it is a compliment. Words change their meanings over time. Hence rather than look backwards through time to their ‘root’ meaning (a diachronic approach) the correct methodology is to study how they were used at the time of the writer (a synchronic approach). The famous structural linguist de Saussure regularly made the point that the synchronic approach must be primary. Zaman commits the root/etymological/diachronic mistake regularly and particularly grossly in the example of proskuneo discussed above.

Bill Bryson is a more popular writer on the subject of language. Discussing changes in word meanings, Bryson writes:

Surprisingly often the meaning becomes its opposite or something very like it. Counterfeit once meant a legitimate copy. Brave once implied cowardice — as indeed bravado still does. (Both come from the same source as depraved). Crafty, now a disparaging term, originally was a word of praise, while enthusiasm, which is now a word of praise, was once a term of mild abuse. Zeal has lost its original pejorative sense, but zealot curiously has not. Garble once meant to sort out, not to mix up. A harlot was once a boy, and a girl in Chaucer's day was any young person, whether male or female. Manufacture, from the Latin root for hand, once signified something made by hand; it now means virtually the opposite. Politician was originally a sinister word (perhaps, on second thoughts, it still is), while obsequious and notorious simply meant flexible and famous. Simeon Potter notes that when James II first saw St. Paul's Cathedral he called it amusing, awful, and artificial, and meant that it was pleasing to look at, deserving of awe, and full of skilful artifice.

This drift of meaning, technically called catachresis, is as widespread as it is curious. Egregious once meant eminent or admirable. In the sixteenth century, for no reason we know of, it began to take on the opposite sense of badness and unworthiness (it is in this sense that Shakespeare employs it in Cymbeline) and has retained that sense since. Now, however, it seems that people are increasingly using it in the sense not of bad or shocking, but of simply being pointless and unconstructive.

According to Mario Pei, more than half of all words adopted into English from Latin now have meanings quite different from the original ones. A word that shows just how wide-ranging these changes can be is nice, which is first recorded in 1290 with the meaning of stupid and foolish. Seventy-five years later Chaucer was using it to mean lascivious and wanton. Then at various times over the next 400 years it came to mean extravagant, elegant, strange, slothful, unmanly, luxurious, modest, slight, precise, thin, shy, discriminating, dainty, and – by 1769 – pleasant and agreeable. The meaning shifted so frequently and radically that it is now often impossible to tell in what sense it was intended, as when Jane Austen wrote to a friend, ‘You scold me so much in a nice long letter ... which I have received from you.’ (Bill Bryson, Mother Tongue [London: Penguin, 1990], pp. 71-72)

After these entertaining quotations illustrating well the issue under discussion, let me offer the reader what some serious linguists have to say on this point. James Barr states in The Semantics of Biblical Language (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961), THE seminal book on this subject in terms of biblical exegesis:

"The main point is that the etymology of a word is not a statement about its meaning but about its history." (p. 109; emphasis mine)

"... the test of explanations of words is by their contexts." (p. 113)

That words change meaning over time, is not only a feature of English, but can be observed in all languages. The following example of an anachronistic use of a word in the Semitic language Hebrew was part of the reason to expose the Jehoash tablet as a forgery:

1. The Jehoash Inscription uses the expression "to make repairs to the house (temple)," wa’àas ‘et bedeq habbayit. This is fine in modern Hebrew. But in Biblical Hebrew, as is clear from 2 Kings 12, where the story of Jehoash’s effort is related, bedeq habbayit does not mean "repair" the "house" (the Jerusalem Temple), but it refers to the fissures in the house that require repair! The verb in Biblical Hebrew that does mean "repair" is hizzeq, "to fortify"—one repairs the fissures in the foundations and walls by "fortifying" them.

In later Hebrew (apparently beginning with the Mishnah, the code of Jewish law that was written down in the early third century C.E.), the term bedeq bayit came to be used in the sense of "(setting) the house in order." Whoever wrote the inscription did not understand the Biblical usage and replaced the ancient locution with a much later one. (Source: Assessing the Jehoash Inscription, second part: The Linguist: Hebrew Philology Spells Fake; underline emphasis mine)

In the example of proskuneo, Zaman may have become confused because of a similarity of the ‘root’ words behind ‘dog’ and ‘worship’ respectively. The problem is that in saying ‘Word X and Word Y look alike therefore they mean the same thing’ one stumbles straight into another fallacy — that of a failure to grasp the importance of homonymy and polysemy; in short, words can mean different things. Homonymy occurs when two different words are spelled identically. An example would the English ‘bank’ = ‘side of a river‘ and ‘bank’ = ‘place where one keeps money’. What we have here are two different lexemes that happen to be spelled identically. But one cannot connect the two. Most dictionaries will list them as separate entries. My English-German dictionary has even three entries of the word ‘bank’ with 13 and 7 submeanings respectively in the two above mentioned entries (see the issue of polysemy which is discussed in the next paragraph). Turning just one page, I find three separate entries for ‘bark’: bark1 (the skin of a tree), bark2 (the noise of dogs, but also four other meanings), and bark3 (a specific kind of ship). Even though these words are spelled identically, they are not related and one cannot derive the meaning of the one from the other.

[Ignorance of homonymy is particular dangerous in Semitic languages, e.g., Hebrew and Arabic where ignorant exegetes often assume that any words sharing a triconsonantal root must therefore share meanings. But this is clearly erroneous; consider just one example: ‘bread’ and ‘war’ in Hebrew share the same root LHM (lamed, cheth, mem) but only the ignorant would try to connect the two (cf. Barr, Semantics, p. 102).]

Polysemy, on the other hand, occurs when one lexeme has two or more related meanings — for example ‘bank’ = funds held by a dealer in a card game and ‘bank’ = a particular building in a high street (holding / administering the savings / funds of many people), etc. In short, words are much more complicated things than Zaman gives them credit for. (See John Lyons, Language, Meaning and Context, London: Fontana Paperbacks, 1981, chapter 5)

Peter Cotterell (a fellow of the Institute of Linguistics) & Max Turner have the following point to make:

"The history of a word (a diachronic study of its use) may explain how a word came to be used with some particular sense at a specified time, but in order to find out what a lexeme means at that particular time we have only to look at the contemporary usage ... Appeal to etymology, and to word formation, is therefore always dangerous. Even if a word did originally mean what etymology and word formation suggest, there is no guarantee whatever that the word has not changed meaning by the time a particular biblical writer comes to use it ..." (Peter Cotterell & Max Turner, Linguistics and Biblical Interpretation, London: SPCK, 1989, p. 133; emphasis theirs)

J. P. Louw (Semantics of New Testament Greek, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982) says:

"It is a basic principle of modern semantic theory that we cannot progress from the form of a word to its meaning." (p. 29)

This point cannot be stressed too strongly.

It is a common exegetical error to break a word into its component parts in order to determine meaning. Imagine someone doing that with English a couple of thousand years from now with the word chilidog ... Instead of a bean-covered, composite meat that goes well with an ice-cold drink, they might come up with a small mammal that is in need of more warmth.

Rather than breaking it into its component parts, one must take a word on its own merit and understand its meaning from common usage and context. Context is very important – it doesn't matter what a word means in a thousand other places if that's not how the author is using it in the particular instance that you are studying.

Zaman would be well advised to give up his abuse of etymology, but he would not even be able to understand this very sentence, if he tried to determine the meaning of the compound verb give up by an etymological approach (give = an object is transferred from one person to another, up = a movement from a lower to a higher place).

It seems that Zaman has never seriously studied linguistics as the etymological fallacy and the importance of a synchronic rather than diachronic approach to language use is not a new thing. It goes back at least as far as de Saussure (1857-1913), who is more or less regarded as the father of modern linguistics.

This would be less serious if it were obvious that these statements are just a personal opinion of an average Muslim polemicist. They would be as insignificant as they are wrong and then be discarded as such.

Shibli Zaman, however, expects to be taken seriously as a researcher and scholar of linguistics and publishes his articles on a website called "Near Eastern and Semitic Studies Institute of America". Thus he will have to accept that his publications are evaluated based on this standard that he has set for himself.

In conclusion, the above observations seem to lead to the following alternatives:

These are harsh words, but is there a third alternative? I do not have enough information about the actual knowledge and/or motivation of Shibli Zaman. I observe his publications, and am ready to revise my evaluation of them should their quality change in the future. So far, however, the substance of his publications do not match his claims.

Etymological arguments are (nearly) always wrong

So far I have mainly quoted linguists. Let me point to a thesis discussing logical aspects regarding the use of etymology in an argument. The following result should not come as a surprise to anyone who has understood the above discussion of linguistic principles.

‘Essentially, what you do in parliament is talking. Parliament. Look at the French word parler - to talk. There you have it.’ ...

What the speaker above has forwarded will be termed an etymological argument. The standpoint 'Essentially, what you do in parliament is talking' is linked to an argument in which the French term parler and its meaning to talk are presumed to support the standpoint.

From a Pragma-Dialectical perspective, the example constitutes a use of etymology as an argument. The practical question is: What can I justifiably do with an etymology in an argumentative situation? The theoretical questions is [sic]: What is the general form and what are the criteria for evaluating the soundness of an etymological argument?

The questions are obviously related: If criteria for fallaciousness are distilled, these can be used to classify uses of etymology as constituting sound and fallacious discussion moves. Good criteria will only be found if there is a principled reason for the exclusion of certain uses and the exclusion, then, takes place because and only because of this reason. Hence, we are looking for what goes wrong in particular variants of what, at this point, is still an undifferentiated notion of the etymological argument.

Both questions find their answer in this thesis. It is an answer that rejects etymology as a function of what is de facto done in using etymology in a discussion. Precisely, the use of etymology as a method will show to be fallacious in the context of a critical discussion if this method is employed for the purpose of giving a definition of the term that features in the etymology.

(Frank Zenker, The Etymological Argument: Fallacy or Sound Move?, M.A. Thesis in Discourse and Argumentation Studies, University of Amsterdam, August 2002; quoted from the Introduction, online source; bold emphasis mine; later discovered: this thesis is also available in full at Frank Zenker's own site)

This thesis confirms again that the appeal to etymology in an argument in order to establish the meaning of a word is a logical fallacy.

Zaman's favorite methodology for arguing is bad linguistics and bad logic.

Zaman and Aramaic Etymology

Zaman has published already twice on the alleged Ossuary of James (the brother of Jesus), an archaeological issue that made headlines ever so often during the last year. In the second article Zaman stated:

Nonetheless, I analyzed all the data available regarding the box and its puzzling inscription with an open mind. Almost immediately I believed the inscription was a forgery because anyone who knows Aramaic would immediately spot a serious grammatical error therein. Forgers are good at their craft but they are terrible etymologists.

Is Zaman the scholar of linguistics which he seemingly wants to present himself as? Is he knowledgeable in etymology and applying the results of this branch of linguistics responsibly? The people (or person) who put the inscription on the ossuary (whether in ancient times or recently) may have been bad etymologists, but based on the observations already presented in this article (and more is found below), Zaman has hardly a reason to feel ever so superior in comparison to them.

In fact, he seems not even to be able to use the word correctly. Grammar has very little to do with etymology. Grammar is about the place of words within a sentence, about the relationship between words and about the changes that words undergo depending on case, number, tense, etc. Grammar is about the use of words within a sentence structure.

Etymology is the study of the derivation of words, of the historical development of words, their forms and meanings. In the example discussed above: Etymology (together with morphology) yields that proskuneo is a composite of pros and kuneo (i.e. dividing words into the correct parts, not as pro and skuneo), and etymology informs us when these words were first used. Etymology tells us that pros is a contraction of the older form proti. Etymology helps to determine that the root of kuneo is kus, and that the word has the meaning kiss. Etymology may even tell us that the English verb kiss, the German küssen, and the Greek kuneo are not accidentally looking similar, but are actually closely related within the Indo-European language family. Etymology will also tell us that the Greek kuon, kunos (nominative, genitive case) is related to the Latin canis which also means dog, and entered the English language as the adjective canine. Grammar on the other hand is concerned about case endings in nouns, singular or plural, and regarding verbs about past, present or future tense, active or passive, indicative or imperative forms, etc.

Since Zaman (incorrectly) puts his main argument against the hotly debated "Ossuary of James" into the category "etymology", I had to mention this issue in the present article as well. An evaluation of and a partial response to the arguments listed in his two articles on the ossuary does not belong here and is found in this separate article.

The next and quite considerable etymological blunder that I want to discuss is found in Zaman's article "Talking Ants in the Qur'an?" In his discussion of the verse, "Till, when they reached the Valley of the Ants, an ant (naml) said: O ants! ..." (Surah 27:18), Zaman makes the following statement:

First of all we have the word "naml" in Arabic which is a word for ants as well as termites in the Arabic language. Ants [sic] are usually called in Arabic "an-Naml al-Abyad" meaning "the white ant".

Note: Zaman wrote Ants but clearly meant Termites.

[To see the context of Zaman's statement, and the reason why he would want to make such an argument in the first place, see my full response to his article.]

Etymology can be great fun. I certainly enjoyed playing the ‘etymology game’ and searching out the examples that will be presented below in order to illustrate that this kind of etymological argument is nearly always wrong.

Whether a specific etymological argument is correct or incorrect in the final analysis, one usually works with the words that are present in a given text, takes them apart and analyzes the component parts. The above instance of the etymological fallacy is particularly curious, since Zaman did not content himself with the words that are there in the verse, but first adds a new word (al-Abyad) before he then, in a second step, performs a bad etymological argument on his home-made expression.

Frankly, it doesn't matter what the expression "an-Naml al-Abyad" means since the verse only has only the word naml, and there is no doubt that naml by itself means ant and not termite. This is proven and all further linguistic and scientific issues relevant to the interpretation of Surah 27:18 are discussed in detail in the article Talking Ants in the Qur'an?

The Arabic name for termite is a composite expression that contains as one part the word naml which means ant (when standing alone), but the word naml by itself is not a word that covers both ants and termites. Linguistically, this is absolute nonsense.

If such a deduction would be valid, then the word "cat" in English is a word for cats as well as rain drops, since the English say "it is raining cats and dogs" when they speak of a heavy rain. Certainly, this is an extreme example, but it illustrates that composite words and idiomatic expressions cannot usually be disected and their meaning deduced from the parts.

The linguistic principles listed above and the examples given there already settle the case, but nothing drives this home better than a good number of drastic illustrations that make it clear that one cannot deduce the meaning of the composite from its parts. A number of examples were already given in my Talking Ants rebuttal. As an everyday example, one could observe that an eye lash is not a kind of lash. The following illustrations will be from the botanical or zoological world, since these are more similar to the "white ant" mistake of Zaman:

In reality, wild rice is a grass, not rice. The stalks can grow to be 9 feet tall. The rice is in the head of the stalk. Initially, it was harvested by bending the stalks into a boat and beating the "rice" from the heads. Today, most rice is planted and harvested mechanically. Northern wild rice is an annual which means each plant only lives one year. The plant drops seeds from its head to ensure next years crop. It belongs to the family Poaceae and is classified as zizania aquatica. (Source)

Wild rice is actually a cereal grain. A tall, aquatic plant of the grass family [with] a genus that is completely separate from that of rice. This annual grass grows in shallow water (up to 4 feet) in slow streams and rivers and even along the shores of certain lakes. It is the seeds of this plant that we call wild rice. (Source)

Wild rice is not rice nor is it wild. It is a grass, which is native to North America. It used to be just a natural grass found in shallow lakes and waterways, but it is now grown commercially in the U.S. (Source)

Browsing through Websters Unabridged Dictionary and looking up a number of colors, yields plenty of examples: A greenhorn is an inexperienced person, but has neither green skin nor a horn of any color. The white miller denotes the common clothes moth, not a miller who is Caucasian in his ethnic origin. The red horse denotes any large American red fresh-water sucker, especially Moxostoma macrolepidotum and allied species. The red spider is not a spider but a small web-spinning mite (Tetranychus telarius) which infests, and often destroys, plants of various kinds, especially those cultivated in houses and conservatories. It feeds mostly on the under side of the leaves, and causes them to turn yellow and die. The adult insects are usually pale red.

There are a number of species that are called by the popular name glowworm (see these webpages: *, *, *, *, *), even though a glowworm is not a worm but an insect. Interestingly, similar to the expression "white ant" for termites, this etymological misnomer is present in many languages, e.g. glowworm (English), Glühwürmchen (German), kerme shab tab (Persian, literally night light worm), and similar terminology exists without doubt in further languages.

A hog is a pig, but a hedgehog is not a pig that is hiding in the woods. The Persian name for the hedgehog is joujeh tighi which literally means something like "thorny chick" even though nobody would ever think that this animal is a kind of bird.

Leek is an onion-like vegetable but a green leek is a certain type of parrot (bird).


The word "horse" does not cover all species that have the component horse in their name (seahorse, red horse). The word "spider" does not denote spiders and mites even though there is a species of mites that is called "red spider". The word "worm" is not a word for worms and for insects, even though there are some insects named "glowworm". "Leek" is not a word for vegetables and for birds, even though there is a bird with the name "green leek". And finally, "ant" is not a word for ants and for termites, despite the fact that termites are also called "white ants" in several languages. This principle is true for Arabic just as well as for English.

Hisan al-bahr (literally: sea mare) is the Arabic name for the seahorse. The plant hop (used to brew beer) is called hashishet ad-dinar (hashish = grass; Dinar = a coin / currency in some Arabic countries), i.e. it is called "dinar grass", but it is neither a grass nor will you ever find real dinars growing on it. The mantis is called in Arabic faras an-nabi (the prophet's horse), the jellyfish is kandil al-bahr (sea lantern), the chameleon has the colloquial name umm al-bakht (fortune mother), and lastly, to have another example with a color involved, zarqaa al-yamama (Yamama's Blue, or the Yamamanian Blue): Yamama is a geographic area, zarqaa is the color blue, but "the yamamanian blue" denotes a legendary pre-Islamic figure, a woman from a certain Arabian tribe who supposedly had the ability to see objects from a distance of a 3 days walk.

These examples should be sufficient to expose Zaman's argument as the linguistic nonsense that it is.

Jochen Katz

[ P.S.: Although this has no direct bearing on our discussion, the article Spotlight on... ants has some delightful comments about the etymology of the English word "ant". ]

Mr. Zaman decided to disagree and published a response to the above article. Our subsequent discussion is documented in this article.

Responses to Shibli Zaman
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