Armenian Language Corner

How the Chestnuts Showed Up from Nowhere?

There are no-words in different languages that become words by a stroke of the pen. We have discussed such a case in the past: շերամ (sheram), the Armenian word for “silk.” Something similar happened with “chestnut.”
The story starts with the word շահդանակ (shahdanak, in Classical Armenian), which appeared in the Atlas of geographer and astronomer Anania Shirakatsi (seventh century A.D.). As all compound words starting with shah (“king”), this one had Iranian origin: it came from Pahlavi—the language spoken during the kingdom of Parthia (250 B.C.-224 A.D.)—shahdanak (Persian shahdana), literally “royal grain,” which actually meant “grain of hemp.” The manuscripts of this work showed nine variants of the Armenian word, due to the work of the scribes, ranging from շաղդանակ (shaghdanak) to շատանայ (shatana) to շագանակ (shaganak).
The Haigazian Dictionary (Հայկազեան Լեզուի Բառարան), spearheaded by Mekhitar of Sebastia (1676-1749), was the first project to compile the entire Armenian vocabulary. Mekhitar wrote and saw to the publication of the first volume (1749) in his death bed. The second volume was compiled by five of his disciples and published in 1769. Its authors selected the word շագանակ (pronounced shakanag in Western Armenian) from the manuscripts of Shirakatsi’s work as the most reasonable variant and attributed it the meaning “chestnut.”
They were wrong. The accurate word was շահդանակ (pronounced shahtanag in Western Armenian) and its meaning was “grain of hemp.” However, the following dictionaries of Classical Armenian in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, including the authoritative New Haigazian Dictionary ( Նոր Հայկազեան Լեզուի Բառարան) , published in 1836-1837, adopted the same word shakanag with the meaning “chestnut.” As a result, the inexistent word and its inexistent meaning entered the literary language. Today, if you need to pull someone’s chestnuts out of the fire (i.e. do something difficult for someone else), you will say շագանակները կրակէն դուրս հանել ( shakanagneruh gragen toors hanel “to take the chestnuts out of the fire”). The word shahtanag has lost the train of language history.