Lemma-out of here!

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!”

4 thoughts on “Lemma-out of here!

  1. As a proud user of the word “lemma”: pfft to your threats to my goolies. 🙂 I reject grousing about specialist vocabulary as a plot against the populace—I could say the same about “inheritance” or “hierarchy” in programming; and if you’re intimidated by “lemma”, it’s not like “lexeme” is going to intimidate you any less. After all,

    “When was the last time you went down to get your car serviced, and told the mechanic to look at the catena? When did you hear a TV announcement talk about the catenas in the latest failed government IT project?”

    The real issue with “lemma” is simply that it has picked up multiple related meanings in different domains—the underlying common meaning being “starting point for a definition”. Thus, headword in a dictionary, scriptural passage in a catena, reference to authority in a catena; and more indirectly (though older) “presupposed proposition in a proof”.

    How it ended up with the meaning it has in botany, though, I have no idea.

  2. Thank you for your thoughts!

    You’re right that every discipline has its jargon; but in computing inheritance, disgusting as it is, has ONE meaning. Lemma can mean anything.

    Yes, Lexeme is not much better, except in that regard.

  3. A comment emailed in by Andrew Eastbourne:

    At the risk of having my goolies chopped off (and I did appreciate the humor!)…I maintain that *my* way of using “lemma” is the proper one. 🙂 I do think it’s a useful term, though, although it is jargon: Note that Devreesse talks about the way it’s used for catenae semi-apologetically (“a fair distance from its original meaning,” or something like that) — and if you think of the basic idea as the “subject for discussion” or “heading,” all the uses make some sense: 1) the bit of text commented on in a particular part of a commentary; 2) the individual word in the NT commented on by giving its grammatical analysis; 3) the citation form in a dictionary, “commented on” via the definitions etc.; and 4) the heading in a catena. The catena use is really the odd one out, but has a discernible relationship. I assume that #1 is the origin of the others in this list (not just because that’s the meaning I was using!), and that’s the one where its technical meaning is, I think, most useful…so as not to have to constantly say, “the bit of text I’m commenting on.” For the others, there are the more obvious “word” (#2) or “citation form” (#3) and “attribution” (#4). Or is there an equally clear and concise alternative for #1, do you think? There is a true quandary in the context of the translation of excerpts from catenae, where two mutually exclusive meanings are potentially swirling around a reader’s head.

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