A comment on lexicons: ἘΠΙΣΗΜΟΣ

If a lexicon, say, BDAG, gives two entries for a word and one is entirely positive and the other is entirely negative, as below:

ἐπίσημος, ον (σῆμα, ‘sign’; Trag., Hdt.+).

of exceptional quality, splendid, prominent, outstanding (Hdt., Trag. et al.; pap, LXX, EpArist, Philo; Joseph.) κριὸς ἐ. ἐκ ποιμνίου a splendid ram fr. the flock MPol 14:1. Of pers. (Diod S 5, 83, 1; Jos., Bell. 6, 201; 3 Macc 6:1; Just., A II, 12, 5) ἐ. ἐν τοῖς ἀποστόλοις outstanding among the apostles Ro 16:7. διδάσκαλος MPol 19:1.

② Also in a bad sense: notorious (Trag. et al.; Plut., Fab. Max. 182 [14, 2]; Jos., Ant. 5, 234) δέσμιος Mt 27:16.—DELG s.v. σῆμα. M-M. TW.

Granted LSJ also includes a number [real] senses from which the sense we have in the NT is derived. In any case. the point is that there is no specifically positive sense and no specifically negative sense. Just one neutral sense.

8 thoughts on “A comment on lexicons: ἘΠΙΣΗΜΟΣ

  1. It would have been much better for the lexicon to have offered a single entry with a neutral definition, then a discussion of how ἐπίσημος, ον can be rendered differently in translation based on positive or negative contextual features. But maybe that’s asking a little to much of the lexical tools we currently have at our disposal. Perhaps that will change in the years ahead.

    1. It’s all about the minimal semantic import. The fact is that ἐπίσημος doesn’t contribute the negative or positive connotation to the clause any more than ἀλλὰ makes a clause adversative.

      It terms of glosses, how about ‘notable,’ ‘striking,’ ‘conspicuous’? If we wanted to talk about linguistic markedness in Greek, we’d probably use ἐπίσημος: ‘marked.’

      LSJ may not have the definitions, but it is far superior on this entry. BDAG failure is merely a result of the rarity of the word in the NT and early christian literature.

  2. No need to bite.🙂

    It’s actually pretty simple. Here’s an example of what could be done in a traditional type lexicon like BDAG:

    ἐπίσημος, ον (σῆμα, ‘sign’; Trag., Hdt.+).
    of exceptional quality, in either a positive or negative sense.

    • Of exceptionally positive quality, “splendid, prominent, outstanding” (Hdt., Trag. et al.; pap, LXX, EpArist, Philo; Joseph.) κριὸς ἐ. ἐκ ποιμνίου a splendid ram fr. the flock MPol 14:1. Of pers. (Diod S 5, 83, 1; Jos., Bell. 6, 201; 3 Macc 6:1; Just., A II, 12, 5) ἐ. ἐν τοῖς ἀποστόλοις outstanding among the apostles Ro 16:7. διδάσκαλος MPol 19:1.

    • Of exceptionally negative quality, “notorious” (Trag. et al.; Plut., Fab. Max. 182 [14, 2]; Jos., Ant. 5, 234) δέσμιος Mt 27:16.—DELG s.v. σῆμα. M-M. TW.

    This kind of entry, though, is little more than a list of possible translation options. What I hope to see one day is a kind of lexicon we don’t currently have—one that provides actual definitions rather than simply lists of possible translations. That would require a brief discussion of the meaning of ἐπίσημος, ον, and that discussion could present the neutral meaning in more clear terms, then discuss the way that meaning can be modified by context to have either a positive or negative implication.

  3. I’m reminded of Cicero’s chracterization (in hiis Pro Caelio) of the society belle of the mid-first c. BC as “non solum nobilis verum etiam nota,” playing upon the ambiguities of “recognizable”/”respectable” and “known”/”notorious.” Adjectives of this kind tend, I think, to carry more of a connotation dependent upon utterance or context than upon essential denotation. I think that the most valuable information in the lexicon is the list of texts exemplifying the lexicographer’s judgments about the meaning. Users should not (but of course do) look to a lexical entry for a gloss to fit the text they’re reading.

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