Weißt-du was “messy” bedeutet? On Coptic words of Greek Origin

A couple years ago I had the pleasure of meeting James Swanson, a lexicographer of the Greek NT, at a table he was manning at the book exhibition of the SBL conference.  We began to discuss the possibility of restoring a Greek text from a Coptic translation.  If a Greek word appears in the Coptic text, does that mean that that exact word was used in the original Greek?  Swanson responded, “Does the Coptic speaker even know that it is a Greek word?”  Coptic is a language with many loan words from Greek and it is highly possible, after hundreds of years or even a few years, that Coptic speakers were frequently unaware of the etymological origin of any given term.  Coptologists, such as my colleague on the Acta Pauli, Pierre Cherix, are acutely aware of this issue, and Cherix once took issue with me in a meeting of AELAC in Bex, Switzerland, when I suggested that a meaning of a certain Greek word in the Bodmer XLIX must have corresponded with Paul’s use of the term.

A friend of mine, Brigette, who has lived in Canada since her childhood, returned to her native Germany to visit family.  Her cousin brought her into her Schlafzimmer with an apology that her room was “sehr messy”.  Then, she turned to Brigette and said in all earnestness, “Brigette, weißt-du was “messy” bedeutet?”  Well, Brigette found this very funny since her cousin knew that she was fluent in English but somewhat rusty in German, having been in Canada so long, yet the cousin was apparently unaware that “messy” is a German word of English origin.  Of course, when and how the word “messy” entered the German language, I am unable to tell.

As a student of Coptic trying to do exegesis of Coptic texts, I find it a pity that Coptic dictionaries do not list Greek words.  For that one is forced to know the Greek language.  But this can lead to lexical errors, as a specialist like Cherix would be quick to point out.  Imagine if a grade school pupil looking up the word “preservative” in English, and it wasn’t in the dictionary.  The confused child approaches the teacher and says, “Teacher, I can’t find this word!”  The teacher then says, “Oh you have to look that one up in Le Petit Robert because it is a French word.”  So the little child goes to Robert and finds the following (s.v., “préservatif, ive”):

Capuchon en caoutchouc, en plastique très souple qui s’adapte au pénis, employé comme moyen de protection contre les maladies sexuellement transmissibles ou comme contraceptif. [i.e., a condom]

Unfortunately, we need a comprehensive dictionary of the Coptic language that also provides possible meanings for Coptic words of Greek origin.


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