10.23.2006

Folk Etymology and the Month of (Mar)Cheshvan

I am somewhat interested in folk etymology--the sources that people give for words either for homiletic reasons or because they really believe these sources to be correct, despite having no linguistic evidence to back them up. (Folk etymologies can be correct, but are not necessarily correct.) Where words really come from is less interesting to me than where people think they come from. The stories that people tell about their world in an effort to make sense of it all fascinates me endlessly.

Take those people who think that every word in English comes directly or indirectly from Hebrew, because Hebrew must be the first language. What worldview do they have in which their foundations of faith crumble if Hebrew was not the very first language? Do they really believe what they say, or do they say it because they need to think it's true for some reason? Do they think that Hebrew being some kind of primal language makes it more "authentic" or superior? Fascinating. Don't you think?

(Mar)Cheshvan is a terrific month for thinking about folk etymology. Anyone who grew up going to Jewish day school probably learned at a young age that the Hebrew month of Cheshvan is sometimes called "Marcheshvan" because it is a "bitter" (Hebrew: "mar") month due to its lack of holidays. I think I might have even been taught (or derived myself) that it was the only holiday-less month, despite the fact that Iyar, Tammuz, Elul, and Tevet are also apparently holiday-less. Av is no great shakes, either, and would be a prime candidate for a "bitter" month in my book, although I suppose the bitter lamentations of Tisha B'Av are mediated somewhat by Tu B'Av.

The actual etymology of "Marcheshvan" is apparently the Akkadian word "waraḫsamnu," meaning "eighth month." (Waraḫ presumably being like the Hebrew "yare'ach" or moon and samnu presumably being like the Hebrew "shmona" or eight. How's that for some amateur etymology?) Indeed, in the biblical account of the months, Marcheshvan is the eighth month. The real question is not why Cheshvan is called Marcheshvan, but why it is called Cheshvan without the "Mar." Who dropped the "mar" and why?

But the etymology doesn't stop there. Oh, no!

In the Bible, the eighth month is referred to by name only once, and is called "Bul." This is in I Kings 6:38, where it describes King Solomon's completion of the Temple in Jerusalem:

לח ובשנה האחת עשרה בירח בול, הוא החודש השמיני, כלה הבית, לכל-דבריו ולכל-משפטיו; ויבנהו, שבע שנים 38 And in the eleventh year, in the month Bul, which is the eighth month, was the house finished throughout all the parts thereof, and according to all the fashion of it. So was he seven years in building it.

Rashi explains that "bul" means "mabul" ("flood"), because this is the month during which the Great Flood (with Noah and the ark and all that) occurred. Rashi might have given this explanation (bul = mabul) because Cheshvan/Bul is the month during which a special prayer for rain is added in the land of Israel, and during which if there is no rain, special fasts were instituted to pray for rain. But does "Bul" really come from the word "mabul"? Maybe it does, in which case this not a folk etymology by a real etymology.

Either way, have a sweet Cheshvan!

7 comments:

David said...

Av gets referred to as menahem av, so mar there would be superfluous.

I see why your etymology for Heshevan could be correct, but what's your source other than the meaning and phoenetic similarities between the Akkadian and Hebrew words?

ALG said...

I'm not really in my element here and don't know exactly what I'm talking about, but all such disclaimers aside, all Jewish refereneces to "(Mar)Cheshvan" come from after the Babylonian exile, and I think it is widely believed that the names for the months that we use today (unlike the Biblical names: Aviv, Bul, Ziv) are from the Babylonian calendar. I think it's even possible that our whole current calendar system is based on their 19 year cycle (or maybe they developed together at the same time--I really don't know). They even have an "Adaru" (like our Adar) added in every once in awhile to keep the lunar and solar calendars aligned. I'm sure other readers know more about this than I do, though, so I'll let them contribute if they see fit.

Good question, though!

Liorah-Lleucu said...

There is a primal language. I remember speaking it. I've told the story here.

alg's dad said...

First of all, Iyar, Tammuz, Av, Elul and Tevet all do have special days, albeit sad ones in the case of Tammuz, Av, and Tevet (though Tevet also has the tail end of Chanukah). But Tisha B'Av and the minor fast days, except for Ta'anis Esther, are supposed to become happy days in Yemot Hamashiach. And Iyar has Lag B'Omer, as well as, nowadays, Yom HaAtzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim. Marcheshvan is unique in not having any special days at all, happy or sad.

The etymology of Marcheshvan from the Akkadian, and the relation to the Hebrew yareach shmoneh, are listed in lots of etymological dictionaries, including my favorite, Ernest Klein's A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language. Klein generally does not list proper Biblical Hebrew names that are not commonly used in modern Hebrew, so he does not list the month Bul. He does list a common noun "bul," meaning "produce," which is a shortened form of "yevul," and at first I thought that might the origin of the month name. But Brown, Driver and Briggs' Hebrew-English Lexicon of the Old Testament lists the month Bul and the common noun "bul" as separate roots, and says that the month name Bul was also the Canaanite name for the eighth month, and was the name of a Canaanite god, possibly related etymologically to Ba'al. So apparently Rashi's derivation from "mabul" is folk etymology, unless it turns out that there is a connection between "mabul" and the name of the Canaanite god.

In addition to Aviv, Bul, and Ziv, there is another month name mentioned in the Tanach, Eitanim, which is the month we call Tishrei. The word "eitan" means "permanent" especially in regard to rivers, or "ever-flowing," and comes from the shoresh yod-taf-nun. I suppose it was used from Tishrei because, in Tishrei, just before the rainy season begins, the only rivers still flowing are the ones that always flow.

Jews didn't start using the 19 year cycle for adding Adar Sheni until the fixed Hebrew calendar was adopted in the 4th century CE. Before that, an extra Adar was added by the Sanhedrin whenever the barley crop didn't look like it was going to be ready in time for bringing the Omer, or the first day of the Omer was going to fall before the vernal equinox, or various other reasons, listed by the Rambam in the Mishneh Torah (Kiddush HaChodesh). The Greek astronomer Meton knew about the 19 year cycle for reconciling solar and lunar calendars (which is called the Metonic cycle), but it wouldn't be surprising if the Babylonians discovered it before Meton. Adar would be a logical time to add the extra month, if the year begins in the spring.

Dave (Balashon) said...

The one thing I never get about those people who think that all words have to come from Hebrew is that they base this on the story of the Tower of Bavel. Ok, in that story, before God's intervention, everyone spoke one language. Let's even say it was Hebrew.

God goes down there, and makes them speak many different languages. Why should we assume that God had to leave so many similarities to the original language in all the new ones? Wouldn't that contradict His plan?

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

i've also heard Bul associated with BLH (wear out) or NBL (wither).

Anonymous said...

jre Dave's Oct.30 comment:

The part of the story regarding "give me a brick" interpreted as "give me a log" because of language mixup wouldn't work if there weren't SOME similarities in the languages.