Armenian Language Corner

How Time and Place Are Tied to Each Other

We all know that the English name for the head of a certain board is chairman. But don’t rush: the Armenian translation of “chairman” is not atoramart (աթոռամարդ)! This would only be a literal, but inexistent translation. The actual Armenian word is adenabed (ատենապետ), and its components have nothing to do with “chair” or “man.”

Where does adenabed come from? There is a word aden that means “time,” synonymous with zhamanag (ժամանակ). For instance, you may say, “Aden choonim” («Ատեն չունիմ» / “I don’t have time”), and this is the same as “Zhamanag choonim” («Ժամանակ չունիմ»).

However, if the word bed (պետ) means “head, chief, leader,” does this mean that adenabed literally means “chief of time”?

Not a chance.

The word aden derives from adean (ատեան). The grammatical rule establishes that the diphthong ea (եա) becomes e (ե) in a compound word. Thus, we have madean (մատեան “book”) > madenataran (մատենադարան “library”). This is how we ensure that the e in adenabed and madenataran is written with ե and not է.

But adean has nothing to do with time. It means “meeting, session; assembly of judges; court; trial,” as well as “consulting body/board.” Thus, adenabed means “head of the meeting” or “head of the consulting body/board.” In the same way, the secretary of that same meeting or board is called adenatubir (ատենադպիր); tubir means “scribe,” hence the original meaning of tubrots (“school”) as place where the scribes were trained in old times.

However, a puzzling question remains: how adean went from indicating place to indicate time? From its original meaning, adean later went to mean “time of the session or meeting,” and then “time” in general. Interestingly, the current word aden is only used in Western Armenian with the meaning “time.”

There is an opposite example of a word going from indicating time to indicate place. It is precisely the word zham (ժամ “moment”), which later acquired the meaning “church.” Yegeghetsee yertal (եկեղեցի երթալ) and zham yertal (ժամ երթալ) have practically the same meaning, although the latter is rarely used in writing nowadays. From this secondary use of zham, we have the word zhamgoch (ժամկոչ “sexton”).

Time flies, and so the meaning of words.