Saturday, January 29, 2005

Eggcorns and Belial

The mavens at Language Log have come up (here, here, and here) with the term "eggcorn" to denote "relatively infrequent folk etymologies," such as "eggcorn" for acorn, "reigns of power" (for reins of power), and (I love this one) "star craving mad" for stark raving mad. The Language Loggers apparently limit mondegreen to mis-hearing of a song or poem (although that seems arbitrary to me).

The difference between eggcorn and folk etymology, though, seems to be primarily sociolinguistic: an eggcorn becomes a folk etymology only by being adopted by an entire speech community. And that made me think of a Biblical Hebrew folk etymology that must have begun as an eggcorn: צלמות, tzalmavet, "shadow of death" for tzalmut, "deep darkness." Another eggcorn in the Bible is in Gen. 2:23, where it says "she shall be called Woman (ishah), because she was taken out of Man (ish)." Comparative philology tells us that the etymon of ishah was not related to ish (compare the cognate Aramaic itta). But the folk understanding of ishah in Hebrew as a "man-ess" must have been irresistible.

Some of the etymologies embedded in our lexica may be eggcorns, as well: the old understanding of בליעל, beliyya'al, "Belial," as "without worth" may be such, embedded though it is in the Masoretic pointing; but so may be the modern etymology (proposed, I think, by Frank Cross and David Freedman) *beli ya'al "(place of) no ascent," i.e. the underworld, Sheol. Some of the rabbis took it as beli 'ol, "without yoke, lawless." The Qumran texts take it simply as a personal name for Satan or one of his demons.

In this case, we really don't know what is the acorn and what is the eggcorn. My guess is that any etymology that relies on compounding *beli with something else is wrong, since compounding, as a derivational process, is rare to non-existent in Biblical Hebrew. Still ... from small eggcorns great oaks sometimes grow.

UPDATE: Tim@SansBlogue adds some worthwhile thoughts of his own. And more on eggcorns here.


Eliyahu ben Avraham vaSarah said...

I recall when I was told--quite recently actually--by a professor that איש and אשה were not in fact related linguistically that I was completely flabbergasted. Of all the etymologies given in the Hebrew Bible that has always been one that I just assumed to be based in fact, it just looks like it should be true.

Cb said...

Ed - you have got one of the best blogs. Intelligent, interesting, and well written. Thanks!