Etymythology

15 08 2007

The title of this post is, to the best of my knowledge, the invention of Gh’ilad Zuckermann. He uses it to refer to all folk etymologies, such as exist in various ethnic communities that have a desire to claim the origin of a word as their own. One is reminded, perhaps, of the father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding who sought to find a Greek origin to any word that he was given. Gh’ilad presented a variety of examples of these at a paper that he delivered recently at LimmudOz, entitled “The Original is Unfaithful to the Translation: ‘Etymythological Othering’ and the Power of ‘Lexical Engineering’ in Judaism, Islam and Christianity”. Great title. In any case, Tyler Williams has posted recently on the same phenomenon, although he refers to it, via D.A. Carson, as “Illegitimate Totality Transfer”. I prefer Gh’ilad’s terminology, but Tyler has a very entertaining video (although for more reasons than the one for which it is presented), and his post is well-worth looking at. John Hobbins follows up on Tyler’s post and provides three examples of the phenomenon in action. In so doing, he likens Rick Mansfield‘s wife to a dog, declares that he will not eat Iyov for dinner, and accuses Charles Halton of BDSM. I would like to provide a further example of etymythology, although I can tell you in advance that it doesn’t involve anyone you might know.

Genesis 5:29 relates the birth and naming of Noah:

ויקרא את־שמו נח לאמר זה ינחמנו ממעשנו ומעצבון ידינו מן האדמה אשר אררה יהוה
And he named him Noah, saying, “This one will provide us with comfort from our work and from the toil of our hands, from the earth that God cursed”

Like many of the names in the Bible, Noah’s is given on the basis of lexical equivalence. “This one will provide us with comfort” is read, in Hebrew, as ze yenakhemenu. Like some of the names, however, the connection is an erroneous one. Another such example is the naming of Samuel, כי מיהוה שאלתיו (“for, from God, I requested him”; 1 Sam 1:20). As with various other puns related to his name (verses 27 and 28 of the same chapter), the etymythology is better related to Saul. The root of each of these words that are used for Samuel’s name, each having to do with requesting or loaning, is the same as the root of the name Saul. It is not the same as the root of Samuel, and some scholars have argued that it was with Saul that this tradition originated. The JPS, desirous to keep (at least this part of) the text in one piece, does a neat little backflip and says that Samuel is a contraction of sha’ul me’el, “asked of God”. You can make of that what you will.

Back to Noah. The root of the name Noah is nun-waw-khet (נוח). The word means “rest, respite” and may also refer to the placing down of something. Religious Jewish adult males use this verb every morning when they make a blessing over the laying of tephillin. The verb that is used in the ety(myth)ology of Noah’s name, however, is nun-khet-mem (נחמ). This is a different word altogether, meaning “comfort”. That the two words are actually unrelated was noticed as early as the Rabbinic midrash, Genesis Rabbah:

לא המדרש הוא השם ולא השם הוא המדרש. לא הוה צריך קרא למימר אלא נח זה יניחנו, או נחמן זה ינחמנו
The name does not correspond to the etymology, nor does the etymology correspond to the name. The text needed only to say, “Noah” – ‘for he will give us rest’, or “Nahman” – ‘for he will give us comfort’.
-bRab 25:2

The words, incidentally, are those of Rabbi Yohanan who is arguing over the nature of the verse with his long-time friend, brother-in-law and antagonist, Rabbi Shim’on ben Laqish. Reish Laqish (as he was known) has a slightly contrary opinion and a discussion then ensues with various other Rabbis regarding the underlying reason for Noah’s name. Perhaps all that the individuals mocked by Tyler Williams need to do is write their nonsense down, make it as opaque and erudite as possible, bury it for a couple of thousand years, and voila. That which started as an illegitimate totality transfer can become a fully-fledged etymythology and, in the opinion of Gh’ilad Zuckermann (advisor to the OED on such matters) a completely valid etymology in its own right.


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2 responses

15 08 2007
Joel Nothman

Okay, so the stuff going on with Samuel is notably weird. Or interesting, however you want to put it.

But there have been enough other alternatives for what’s going on when the Tanakh proposes an assonant connection between a name and a catchphrase. You seem to be assuming that the text (and its author) is assuming an etymythology, and yes it certainly has been understood that way in later ages. See my essay on the topic if you wish.

On the other hand, it could well be the case that assonance was sufficient to name someone by a popular name, rather than the meaning of that actual name, although that is a little strange especially considering the number of (at least later) names that are clearly understandable in Hebrew. I could understand using paronomasia of sorts, though, to name someone in a different language…

Ultimately, given that a name like נוח should be obviously understandable to anyone competent in Hebrew, you would have to give a reason why they might try to etymythologise it with נחם. It would be like calling someone Hope because she had something to do with hopping… The suggestion that someone who has general competence English might suggest a connection between hope and hop more than sound (and spelling) is a little strange.

15 08 2007
Joel Nothman

And as for “illegitimate totality transfer”, that’s something the midrash does all the time- bring other senses of words into its various instances; or declare that a word has negative connotations and then go bring a few examples, etc. Although maybe not as blindly as these guys.

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