January 29, 2018

Is Irreantum a Real Word?

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Scripture Central

In his account of reaching the ocean shore at the Old World Bountiful, Nephi wrote, “We beheld the sea, which we called Irreantum, which being interpreted, is many waters” (1 Nephi 17:5). This unfamiliar name was a source of amusement to some early readers of the Book of Mormon, who attributed its origin to Joseph Smith’s creative imagination.1 Others, though, have sincerely wondered if there are any plausible linguistic roots that match up with Nephi’s definition for this strange word.

Nephi’s explanation suggests that Irreantum was not a Hebrew word, but was from an unfamiliar language which had to be interpreted. Yet if Irreantum is not Hebrew, then what is it? In recent years, scholars have found that its roots could mean “watering of completeness” or “watering of (super)abundance” in  ancient Semitic dialects spoken in southern Arabia. These meanings are certainly consistent with Nephi’s interpretation of the name, and the dialects from which they come were spoken in Lehi’s day along his route through the mountainous coasts of the Red Sea.

Interestingly, the name Irreantum may also be broken down into elements that refer to “great” or “watercourse” in Egyptian as well.2 Ample references in the Book of Mormon indicate that Lehi and his record-keeping posterity knew some form of Egyptian as well as a number of Arab practices and literary customs. These proposals show that Nephi’s interpretation of the name Irreantum has several plausible linguistic explanations.

  • 1. “Irreantum, which being interpreted, is, many waters.” … Proof of this, Mr. Nephi Mormon Moroni Rigdon Harris Cowdery Smith. Let us have the proof. Irreantum signifies a complete ass, nearer than anything else. Origen Bacheler, Mormonism Exposed Internally and Externally (1838), 14.
  • 2. See the discussion of all of these options at https://onoma.lib.byu.edu/index.php/IRREANTUM.

Further Reading

Paul Y. Hoskisson, John Gee, Brian M. Hauglid, “What's in a Name: Irreantum,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 11 (2002): 90–93.

Hugh Nibley, Since Cumorah (Provo, UT; Deseret Book, 1988), 171–72.

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