For a KISS review of dictionaries of biblical Hebrew on the market, go here. For a series on electronic dictionaries I never properly finished, go here. That series is designed to appeal primarily to hard-core enthusiasts of the language. Don't feel bad if you don't yet belong to that number. Keep visiting this blog, however, and you might catch the bug.
In this post, I offer general pointers of use to beginners and intermediate students of the language. Here are seven rules regarding the use of a dictionary while reading a text in ancient Hebrew:
(1) Don’t use it. That’s right. Stay away from the dictionary until you are really stuck. Always try to determine what a word means from context and from whatever other Hebrew you know first. Verify the understanding of the text you have come to on your own as a last step.
(2) Remember, you can’t just plug in the gloss from the dictionary that appeals to you most. The meaning a word has is determined by patterns of usage and by context. The gloss from the dictionary that is most likely to approximate the sense the word has in the text you are reading will be the one it has in similar syntactic and paradigmatic contexts. By syntactic context, I mean the prepositional phrase a verb co-occurs with, the verb that governs the noun in question, etc. By paradigmatic context, I mean the specific contents of the prepositional phrase a verb co-occurs with, the specific verb that governs the noun one is looking at, and so on.
(3) It is preferable to use a dictionary that arranges words according to the root they share. That way one can get a wider overview of possible meanings by comparison with the use to which words of the same root are put. This is necessary more often than one might wish due to the smallness of the biblical and extra-biblical corpora written in ancient Hebrew, which means that many words occur only once, twice, or three times. In fact, if a word occurs 5x, but always in the exact same syntactic and paradigmatic context, it might as well occur only once. A good first guess in such cases is that the poorly-attested word has a set of potential meanings-in-context similar to that of better-attested words of the same root. But see (4).
(4) A word in any language has not one but several related and distinct meanings. Don’t assume that the dictionary you have correctly identifies all of them. The ability of words to be used in different ways in different paradigmatic contexts is phenomenal. It helps to memorize the semantic range of a few words in one’s mother tongue. A great Arabic lexicographer once said that every word in Arabic has four meanings: its primary meaning; the opposite; something to do with camels; and something to do with sex. Every language is a bit like this. Furthermore, despite what was said in (3), verbs and nouns of the same root usually have quite distinct semantic ranges. Here are two examples taken at random from the American Heritage Dictionary:
TRANSITIVE VERB: 1. To give a sudden quick thrust, push, pull, or twist to. 2. To throw or toss with a quick abrupt motion. 3. To utter abruptly or sharply: jerked out the answer. 4. To make and serve (ice-cream sodas, for example) at a soda fountain. 5. Sports To press (a weight) overhead from shoulder height in a quick motion. INTRANSITIVE VERB: 1. To move in sudden abrupt motions; jolt: The train jerked forward. 2. To make spasmodic motions: My legs jerked from fatigue. NOUN: 1. A sudden abrupt motion, such as a yank or twist. 2. A jolting or lurching motion. 3. Physiology A sudden reflexive or spasmodic muscular movement. 4. jerks Involuntary convulsive twitching often resulting from excitement. Often used with the. 5. Slang A foolish, rude, or contemptible person. 6. Sports A lift in which the weight is heaved overhead from shoulder height with a quick motion. PHRASAL VERBS: jerk off Vulgar Slang To masturbate. jerk around To take unfair advantage of, deceive, or manipulate. ETYMOLOGY: Origin unknown.
INTRANSITIVE VERB: 1. To emit or lose blood. 2. To be wounded, especially in battle. 3. To feel sympathetic grief or anguish: My heart bleeds for the victims of the air crash. 4. To exude a fluid such as sap. 5. To pay out money, especially an exorbitant amount. 6a. To run together or be diffused, as dyes in wet cloth. b. To undergo or be subject to such a diffusion of color: The madras skirt bled when it was first washed. 7. To show through a layer of paint, as a stain or resin in wood. 8. To be printed so as to go off the edge or edges of a page after trimming. TRANSITIVE VERB: 1a. To take or remove blood from. b. To extract sap or juice from. 2a. To draw liquid or gaseous contents from; drain. b. To draw off (liquid or gaseous matter) from a container. 3a. To obtain money from, especially by improper means. b. To drain of all valuable resources: “Politicians . . . never stop inventing illicit enterprises of government that bleed the national economy” (David A. Stockman). 4a. To cause (an illustration, for example) to bleed. b. To trim (a page, for example) so closely as to mutilate the printed or illustrative matter. NOUN: 1. An instance of bleeding. 2. Illustrative matter that bleeds. 3a. A page trimmed so as to bleed. b. The part of the page that is trimmed off. PHRASAL VERB: bleed off Aerospace To decrease: “Mike reared the chopper almost vertical to bleed off airspeed” (Robert Coram). ETYMOLOGY: Middle English bleden, from Old English bldan.
NOUN: 1a. The fluid consisting of plasma, blood cells, and platelets that is circulated by the heart through the vertebrate vascular system, carrying oxygen and nutrients to and waste materials away from all body tissues. b. A functionally similar fluid in animals other than vertebrates. c. The juice or sap of certain plants. 2. A vital or animating force; lifeblood. 3. One of the four humors of ancient and medieval physiology, identified with the blood found in blood vessels, and thought to cause cheerfulness. 4. Bloodshed; murder. 5. Temperament or disposition: a person of hot blood and fiery temper. 6a. Descent from a common ancestor; parental lineage. b. Family relationship; kinship. c. Descent from noble or royal lineage: a princess of the blood. d. Recorded descent from purebred stock. e. National or racial ancestry. 7a. A dandy. b. Slang A youth who is a member of a city gang.
TRANSITIVE VERB: Inflected forms: blood·ed, blood·ing, bloods
1. To give (a hunting dog) its first taste of blood. 2a. To subject (troops) to experience under fire: “The measure of an army is not known until it has been blooded” (Tom Clancy). b. To initiate by subjecting to an unpleasant or difficult experience. IDIOMS: bad blood Long-standing animosity. in cold blood Deliberately, coldly, and dispassionately. in (one's) blood So characteristic as to seem inherited or passed down by family tradition. ETYMOLOGY: Middle English blod, from Old English bld.
Blood occurs in combination with many other words. In each case, a specific meaning of blood combines with a specific meaning of the other word to create a new sememe: e.g. blood bath; blood boosting, blood brother, blood sucker, blood thirsty, and bloody minded (which can mean ‘very cantankerous’ and not just ‘ready to resort to violence’).
(5) A good dictionary lists synonyms and antonyms. Pay attention. It's always best to think of a Hebrew word in terms of other Hebrew words rather than in terms of a word in one’s own mother tongue.
(6) A good dictionary will list important idioms and phrases the vocabulary item occurs in. Pay attention and if possible, commit them to memory.
(7) Use the word you are learning in new sentences of your own invention. Try them out on your Hebrew teacher and see what she says (your Hebrew teacher is the closest thing you have to a native informant). If your Hebrew teacher balks at the exercise, find a new Hebrew teacher. It means the teacher treats Hebrew as if it were a dead language. Those who treat ancient Hebrew as dead are simply dead to the language themselves. They should teach something else.
 Keep It Short Stupid.