Wednesday Word: Group

A Group of Drinks (drinking group?)

Gather ’round, and let’s talk about gathering round!

Groups. How do languages express this concept in their unique ways? I just encountered a fun example.

I was working through a consultant check of the translation of Mark 6:39-40. This is part of the gospel story of Christ’s Feeding Of The Five Thousand. What we see here is reason #3,291 (okay, I made that number up) why literal translation does not work. It’s actually not really translation at all.

In verse 39 Christ tells his disciples to have the people “sit in groups.” Then in the next verse, the people “sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties.”

There are two problems with this. First of all, in the original Greek, a different word for “group” is used in each instance. So a stickler might ask if Christ’s command was actually fulfilled, since the people did not sit in the same kind of group he wanted (that’s ridiculous, of course).

But here’s the fun part. The first word for group is sumposion. This word is the ancestor of our word “symposium.” In the first century, its literal meaning was “drinking group.” Yes, you read that correctly. Drinking group. Few translators, no matter how literal, will have Christ commanding that. And no linguistics symposium I’ve ever been to involved drinking. Maybe I went to the wrong school!

The second word used for “group” is prasia, which is based on the Greek word prason (leek). So it means something along the lines of “onion patch.”

And to give the idea of row upon row of leeks planted in garden patches, it is actually repeated as prasia-prasia, which is a Hebrew way of pluralizing, even though this is written in Greek!

So there you have it. Christ asked the people to sit in “drinking groups” and they sat in “onion patches” (Greek, pluralized using a Hebrew reduplication).

How much weirder can language get?


“Cocktails” – image by Royce B. McClure (used by permission)

About Bill Davis

Writer, speaker and translation and language learning consultant. I write technical articles, poetry and humor, and I am working on my first novel which is set on the island of Palawan in the Philippines.
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2 Responses to Wednesday Word: Group

  1. Sunshine says:

    Thanks for the lesson….sitting in an onion patch would be weird. 🙂

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