Printable Version
Pronunciation: hêr-mê-nyu-tik Hear it!

Part of Speech: Adjective, Noun

Meaning: Explanatory, clarifying, exegetical. Exegesis is usually reserved for explanations of the mundane world while hermeneutics is applied mostly in religion and philosophy.

Notes: Today's Good Word began as a term in the Church, referring to activities (or art) that explained the scriptures—even though it is based on the name of a pagan god, Hermes (see Word History). The practice of interpreting the scriptures is known by the adjective used as a noun, hermeneutic (or hermeneutics), and someone involved in it is a hermeneutist. If we remember that this word is derived from the name of the Greek god Hermes, we will be less likely to replace the middle E with an A as many of us, unfortunately, do.

In Play: Since today's word originated in the Church, let's touch base there first: "I just came from another hermeneutic sermon on the epistle of St. John that missed the whole point of the chapter." Remember that, although today's Good Word has long since kicked the habit of the Church and waded into the general vocabulary, it still generally refers to a higher level of interpretation than its lay counterpart, exegesis: "Political science gives us a political hermeneutic of the world while history provides more of a philosophical one."

Word History: Today's Good Word is the English interpretation of Greek hermeneutikos "interpreting", the occupation of a hermeneutes "interpreter". This word was derived from hermeneuein "to interpret", a verb derived from the name of Hermes, the eloquent wing-footed messenger and interpreter of the ancient Greek gods. Exactly how his name turned up in hermetic, as in hermetically sealed, remains a mystery. This word was adopted in the Middle Ages by alchemists from the Latin word hermeticus, which at the time simply meant "related to Hermes". (Today we thank Sue Gold for suggesting today's Good Word, with a hermeneutical note: Sue is a teacher and administrator at Westtown School, where much hermeneutics occurs.)

Dr. Goodword,

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