Armenian Language Corner

What Happens When You Misread a Word?

Greeks went up to Oriental Asia to get a very valuable fabric from the Seres, and called it Serikos. The Roman borrowed the name from them and turned it into sericum. As many other Latin words, this one also traveled up to the British Islands and entered Old English, where the sound r turned into l. The resulting name, seoloc/sioloc, later became the well-known silk of today.

The same Oriental source for silk also gave an Armenian word that, interestingly, does not mean “silk,” but “silkworm”: sheram (շերամ). However, it is assumed that the function of middleman was not carried by the Greek language, because Greek does not have the sound sh. It was probably Syriac, which has the word šeraya (š=sh) “silky material.”

The Armenian language, it appears, borrowed the word in the fifth century A.D. and applied it to the insect that produced the “silky material.” However, the Armenian word appears in all manuscripts until the eighteenth century as շերաս or շէրաս (sheras). The same word was also used in some Western Armenian dialects, such as Akn and Kharpert, until 1915. How did it become sheram?

Sometimes, new words (or old words with a different look) are created by human mistake. The first attempt at a complete dictionary of the Armenian language was undertaken by Mekhitar of Sebastia (1676-1749), the founder of the Mekhitarist Congregation, and his disciples. The massive, two-volume Dictionary of Classical Armenian Language (Բառգիրք Հայկազեան լեզուի) was published in 1749 and 1769. The first volume was authored by Mekhitar himself (it went off the press a few days before his death). The erudite monk, who collected much of his materials from unpublished manuscripts, appears to have found the word in a sentence where sheras was followed by the punctuation sign put (բութ)—ՇԵՐԱՍ՝—and misread it as ՇԵՐԱՄ (SHERAM).

Almost a century later, the New Dictionary of Classical Armenian Language (1836-1837), prepared by a new generation of Mekhitarist monks, superseded the work of Mekhitar. The second volume printed the word as sheras. However, for some reason, subsequent authors chose to follow Mekhitar’s dictionary and this is how the Modern Armenian word for “silkworm” was artificially created.

Of course, after two centuries, it is a little late to make changes.