What does exegetical mean?

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Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: exegetical.

Recently, I’ve become a fan of the very fine American writer Nicholson Baker, pictured here.  A winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award (for his non-fiction book Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on PaperBaker is famous for his long, complex sentences (not a style I usually favour) and his deep interest in the minutia of everyday life.

His brief novel, The Mezzanine, for example, explores nothing more than a man purchasing a pair of shoelaces. But it’s fascinating. (I’m not joking.) I wrote about it here. The Mezzanine also gives me my word of the week: exegetical. Here’s how Nicholson used it:

It is true that Johnson said, on the subject of exegetical notes on Shakespeare, “The mind is refrigerated by interruption; the thoughts are diverted from the principal subject; the reader is wary, he suspects not why; and at last throws away the book, which he has too diligently studied.”

Forty years ago, when I was in university, earning an honours degree in political science, I know I used words such as exegesis and hermeneutics all the time! Is it age or lack of use that’s caused me to forget what they mean?

Exegesis is a critical explanation or interpretation of a text, especially of the Bible, but as you can see, it also applies to the work of writers such as William Shakespeare. The word is Greek in origin, from exegeisthai meaning to “explain, interpret,” from ex “out” and from hegeisthai “to lead, guide.” Exegetical, of course, is the adjective created from these roots.