Some key biblical terms that were directly transliterated from the Hebrew have ended up with unforeseen meanings in the lexicons of various recipient languages.

Take, for example, the English word “cherub,” from Hebrew “kĕrȗb.” Whereas the original Hebrew term meant something like “angelic being that is represented as part human, part animal” (…), the English word now means something like “a person, especially a child, with an innocent or chubby face.” Semantic shift has been conditioned in English by the Renaissance artistic tradition that portrayed cherubim in the guise of cute little Greek cupids. This development was of course impossible to foresee at the time when the first English translations borrowed this Hebrew word into the English Bible tradition, following the pattern of borrowing set by the Greek and Latin translations of the Old Testament.

In Russian, the semantic shift of this transliteration was somewhat different: the -îm ending of “kĕrūbîm,” originally signifying plurality in Hebrew, has been reanalyzed as merely the final part of the lexical item, so that the term херувим (kheruvim) in Russian is a singular count noun, not a plural one. (A similar degrammaticalization is seen in
English writers who render the Hebrew plural kĕrūbîm as “cherubims.”) Apparently, this degrammaticalization of the Hebrew ending is what led the Russian Synodal translator of Gen 3:24 to mistakenly render the Hebrew as saying that the Lord God placed a kheruvim (accusative masculine singular in Russian) to the east of the garden of Eden, instead of indicating a plural number of such beings.

Source: Vitaly Voinov in The Bible Translator 2012, p. 17ff.

In Ngäbere the Hebrew that is translated in English as “cherub” is translated as “heavenly guard” (source: J. Loewen 1980, p. 107).


Some languages do not have a concept of kingship and therefore no immediate equivalent for the Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic that is translated as “king” in English. Here are some (back-) translations:

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  • Piro: “a great one”
  • Highland Totonac: “the big boss”
  • Huichol: “the one who commanded” (source for this and above: Bratcher / Nida)
  • Ekari: “the one who holds the country” (source: Reiling / Swellengrebel)
  • Pass Valley Yali: “Big Man” (source: Daud Soesilo)
  • Una: weik sienyi: “big headman” (source: Kroneman 2004, p. 407)
  • Ghomála’: Fo (“The word Fo refers to the paramount ruler in the kingdoms of West Cameroon. He holds administrative, political, and religious power over his own people, who are divided into two categories: princes (descendants of royalty) and servants (everyone else).” (Source: Michel Kenmogne in Theologizing in Context: An Example from the Study of a Ghomala’ Christian Hymn)

Faye Edgerton retells how the term in Navajo was determined:

“[This term was] easily expressed in the language of Biblical culture, which had kings and noblemen with their brilliant trappings and their position of honor and praise. But leadership among the Navajos is not accompanied by any such titles or distinctions of dress. Those most respected, especially in earlier days, were their headmen, who were the leaders in raids, and the shaman, who was able to serve the people by appealing for them to the gods, or by exorcising evil spirits. Neither of these made any outward show. Neither held his position by political intrigue or heredity. If the headman failed consistently in raids, he was superceded by a better warrior. If the shaman failed many times in his healing ceremonies, it was considered that he was making mistakes in the chants, or had lost favor with the gods, and another was sought. The term Navajos use for headman is derived from a verb meaning ‘to move the head from side to side as in making an oration.’ The headman must be a good orator, able to move the people to go to war, or to follow him in any important decision. This word is naat’áanii which now means ‘one who rules or bosses.’ It is employed now for a foreman or boss of any kind of labor, as well as for the chairman of the tribal council. So in order to show that the king is not just a common boss but the highest ruler, the word ‘aláahgo, which expresses the superlative degree, was put before naat’áanii, and so ‘aláahgo naat’áanii ‘anyone-more-than-being around-he-moves-his-head-the-one-who’ means ‘the highest ruler.’ Naat’áanii was used for governor as the context usually shows that the person was a ruler of a country or associated with kings.”

(Source: Faye Edgerton in The Bible Translator 1962, p. 25ff.)