The word lemma is widely used in the humanities. Indeed it leaves confusion wherever it is employed.
Because no-one knows what it means. When was the last time you went down to get your car serviced, and told the mechanic to look at the lemma? When did you hear a TV announcement talk about the lemmas in the latest failed government IT project? It doesn’t mean anything, chaps.
What brought this on, I hear you ask? The answer is a deeply confusing exchange discussing the fragments of Origen’s comments on Ezekiel with the translator. The said gentleman used the word, in an email discussion of how we are going to present the catena fragments, and communication promptly took a nose-dive.
You may think you know what it means. You are wrong. All you know is one use of the word. There are many.
I first came across the term in connection with the MorphGNT file, containing a Greek New Testament, one word per line, with grammatical information for each word. The help file — I use the term ‘help’ loosely — used the word to describe one item on the line. As a normal person, or at least, not one of the in-crowd, I had no idea what it meant. So I emailed James Tauber, who maintained the file and asked. Answer came there none! In the end I figured out that in MorphGNT lemma here meant “base form of a word, uninflected, in the form found in a dictionary”. It is a little difficult to think of an English alternative, although “dictionary form” or “base form” would do. Doubtless this difficulty led to the use of lemma.
What other uses are there? Well, we just saw Devreesse use it in his description of catenas. In this case he meant “name or abbreviation stuck in the margin of the book to indicate that this extract was by this author.” Again, a short term is not immediately apparent; but lemma does not help.
The translator was using it in yet another sense. Often in a catena, the discussion is preceded by a short quotation of the scripture under discussion. You guessed it — he called that a lemma as well! Nor was he to blame, when others have led the way.
In short, it is an omnipresent jargon word. And I think it should be banned. It is an example of language as a means of intimidation, rather than a means of communication.
Some might say that we could achieve this end by holding a convention, adopting better terminology, setting new standards. But I think the answer is simply to find those using the word and chop their goolies off. If we refer to it as mandatory de-lemmatisation, they won’t know until our posse rolls up and I shout the secret code phrase, “Grab him, boys!”