The Evil That We Do Not Know: "Medz Yeghern" and the "Old Language"

Then he stopped and announced, ‘You know, there was on this land a medz yeghern,
a great cataclysm,’ as the survivors called the genocide.
—Aris Janigian (2009)1
The following spring, the Armenian and Turkish ministries announced that they had agreed on a plan of good relations, which allowed President Barack Obama, in his anticipated April 24 address, to refer to the events of 1915 not by the desired designation but by an Armenian alternative: Medz Yeghern, meaning ‘great calamity.’
—Garin Hovannisian (2010)2
If you are not Armenian, you probably know little about the deportations and the massacres:
the death of a million and a half civilians. Meds Yeghern. The Great Catastrophe.
—Chris Bohjalian (2012)3
Above are quotes from Armenian-American fiction and non-fiction writers. These excerpts indicate that “Great Calamity” and similar terms have become a common translation for “Medz Yeghern.” The trend has also been seen in academia, where non-Armenian academics have used the term. Among them is diaspora theorist William Safran, who wrote, “These events took place in the homeland, but they served to mark the ethnonational consciousness in the diaspora as well, especially events of a negative nature, such as…the Armenian yeghern (catastrophe), the Turkish genocide…”4 Of course, the dominant discourse of the Turkish mainstream, be it as “Great Calamity”5 or as “Great Catastrophe,” is seen in books authored or co-authored by Turkish and Turkish-Armenian writers and scholars.6We may assume that the latter either follow the flow or are genuinely convinced that this is the actual translation of the phrase.
However, an internet search may also yield many English-language Armenian outlets that translate Medz Yeghern as “Great Calamity,” or, sometimes, “Great Crime.” There is a duality that makes necessary, after the survey of Armenian-Turkish and Armenian-English vocabularies, to explore their ultimate source: the Armenian language.

The meaning of ‘yeghern’ in Classical Armenian
We may start by pointing out that calamity and crime are related to each other in that they both stem from the same underlying concept of evil. Evil and crime are closely linked to each other because an evil intent produces an evil act, a crime. Evil and calamity are also closely linked; the Armenian word charik (which etymologically comes from char, “bad”) means both “evil” and “calamity.”
Armenian monolingual dictionaries and literary texts also help us understand both the literal meaning of yeghern and the context in which it was used.
This word is a prime example of a curious entanglement. The Dictionary of Classical Armenian (henceforth, Haigazian Dictionary), compiled by Mekhitar of Sebastia (1676-1749), the founder of the Mekhitarist Congregation in Venice, attests to the existence of the words yeghar (եղար) and yegher (եղեր) in Classical Armenian as meaning “lamentation, cry.” They originated words like yegharamayr > yegheramayr (եղերամայր, “mourner”) and yegheragan (եղերական, “lamentable”). The same dictionary cited the word yeghern (եղեռն) as meaning charik (evil, calamity), tarnutiun (bitterness), zhandutiun (perniciosity), medzavnas kordz (harmful act), abiradutiun (lawlessness).7
An unidentified medieval author of a commentary on Armenian mystic poet Gregory of Narek’s Book of Lamentation wrote that a yeghernakordz (եղեռնագործ) or a charakordz (չարագործ, “evildoer”) was someone “who commits an act that merits lamentation.” The reference was quoted by the New Dictionary of Classical Armenian (henceforth, New Haigazian Dictionary), published by three Mekhitarist monks in 1836-37, which defined yeghern as charik (չարիք, “evil, calamity”), vdank (վտանգ, “danger”), vojir (ոճիր, “crime”), aghedk (աղէտք, “catastrophe”), badahar (պատահար, “event”) and vnas (վնաս, “harm”). The dictionary also mistakenly derived the word yegheragan (“lamentable, tragic”) from yeghern on the basis of that reference.8
The conflation of the two terms in the New Haigazian Dictionary is likely the source of our modern confusion between “calamity” and “tragedy” when translating yeghern. In attempting to explain the origin of yegheragan in Modern Armenian, one would perhaps be led to think that since yegher (եղեր) does not exist as a single root, then yeghern (եղեռն) may have something to do with “tragedy” or “lamentation,” as Armenian linguistic laws establish that ռ (rr) becomes ր (r) and not the other way around (compare դառնալ > դարձ). Dictionaries of Modern Armenian even list the use of yeghernagan (եղեռնական, “criminal”) and yegheragan (եղերական, “lamentable, tragic”) as synonyms, labeling it as “antiquated.”9
In his Dictionary of Armenian Roots (1926-35), linguist Hrachia Acharian (1876-1953) compiled all etymological attempts for yeghern, but did not offer an etymology of his own.10  His disciple, Guevorg Jahukyan (1920-2003), suggested an Indo-European origin and derived it from the reconstructed root *el (“to annihilate, to harm”), of which we have the Greek ollumi, oleko (“to annihilate, to destroy”) and perhaps Hittite hullai (“to triumph, to defeat, to annihilate”).11 It is less possible, but not completely unlikely, that the same root yielded the reconstructed word *եղեռ “crime,” which originated both yeghern and yegher.
It is noteworthy that the New Haigazian Dictionary defines aghed (աղէտ) as “anhnarin charik, vnas; vojir, abiradutiun,”12 which shows that both yeghern and aghed meant “crime” and “calamity” in Classical Armenian.
The meaning of ‘yeghern’ in 5th-century texts
The oldest attestations of yeghern appear in the Armenian translation of the Bible in the 5th century. Amos 3:10 states: “‘They do not know how to do right,’ says the Lord, ‘those who store up violence and robbery in their strongholds’” (Revised Standard Version, RSV); the Classical Armenian translation of the same biblical passage would translate into English as, “‘They did not know the yeghern that would happen to those,’ said the Lord, ‘who stored up violence and misery in their provinces.’” In this context, where “An adversary shall surround the land, and bring down your defenses from you, and your strongholds shall be plundered” (Amos 3:11, RSV), yeghern should be interpreted as “evil” to remain within the framework of the RSV version. Nevertheless, the interpretation “calamity” cannot be excluded.
Interestingly, the Western Armenian translation, directly from the original Greek and Hebrew, renders the same passage as “‘for they do not know to do ughghutiun, says the Lord; ‘they store up privation and robbery in their palaces,’” where ughghutiun means “right”; it implies that if they do not do right, they do evil.13 The Eastern Armenian translation (from Classical Armenian) repeats the phrase as “They did not know the yeghern to happen to them…” The translators contextualized the word with the meaning of “evil”; otherwise, they would have rendered it as aghed (“calamity”).14
Yeghern appears once again in the Bible in a quite problematic passage of 2 Maccabees 4:50: “But Menelaus, because of the cupidity of those in power, remained in office, growing in wickedness, having become the chief plotter against his fellow citizens” (RSV). The Classical Armenian translation is literally: “And so through the greed and avarice of those who were in power, Menelaus remained. He established malice, being medz yeghern vnas to his citizens.” It is quite likely that the words medz yeghern functioned as a qualifier of vnas (“harm”). The adjective medzyeghern (one word), which is not used in Modern Armenian, appears in early bilingual dictionaries translated as “crimeful, heinous” or “execrable, abominable; very wicked, heinous.”15 The Eastern Armenian translation renders “medz yeghern vnas” as “great evils” (“medzamedz charikner”).16
Yeznik Koghbatsi, a remarkable scholar who was among the group of translators of the Bible, used yeghern three times in his Refutation of the Sects:17
1) “[W]e say that that has happened to man not for yeghern, but for goodness” (I: 11);
2) “If Ormizd [Ahura Mazda] learned his father’s thought, why did he not also learn his evil brother’s intention to perforate the abdomen and come out, and go to take the kingdom, which would be yeghern for him and his creatures?” (II: 4);
3) “Or when someone sees his friend going to bandit-filled places and says that he will encounter yeghern, he will not be the cause of harm” (II: 16).
The first occurrence clearly means “evil”; the second can also be interpreted either as “evil” or as “calamity”; while the third definitely associates “bandit-filled places” with “crime.”18
The New Haigazian Dictionary included the following quotations from the Armenian translations of one of the Church Fathers, John Chrysostom:
1) “That yeghern fell on their heads”;
2) “When the greatness of evil [char] succeeds, yeghern is at its head.”19
We assume that the first case likely corresponds to the English translation, “The evil will come round upon his head,”20 while the second reference may be translated as “crime.”
The dictionary even quoted historian Eusebius of Caesarea as part of its inaccurate identification of yeghern and yegher: “Cries [yeghers] and crimes [vojirs] were rampant throughout the land of Egyptians.”21
The following table summarizes the seven uses of yeghern and their most suitable translation:

Amos 3:10Evil/Calamity
2 Maccabees 4:50Crimeful, heinous (medzyeghern)
Yeznik I:11Evil
Yeznik II:4Evil/Calamity
Yeznik II:16Crime
John ChrysostomEvil (?)
John ChrysostomCrime

Acharian defined the Classical Armenian meaning of yeghern as “portzank, charik, both denoting “evil” and “calamity.” While it may be argued that he did not translate yeghern as “crime” in Classical Armenian, it is highly significant that he defined vojir as yeghern; moreover, he noted, yeghern “in the new literary language, means vojir [crime].”22 Jahukyan correctly defined yeghern in Classical Armenian as “portzank, charik, vojir.23
Yeghern belonged to the semantic fields of “evil,” “crime,” and “calamity” in the 5th century CE. We will see whether it continued to have these three meanings in modern times, in “the new literary language”; and whether Acharian, the greatest Armenian linguist of all times, was right or wrong.

1 Aris Janigian, Riverbig, Berkeley: Heyday Books, 2009, p. 66.
2 Garin K. Hovannisian, Family of Shadows: A Century of Murder, Memory, and the Armenian American Dream, New York: HarperCollins, 2010, p. 249.
3 Chris Bohjalian, The Sandcastle Girls, New York: Doubleday, 2012, p. 6.
4 William Safran, “Comparing Visions of the Nation: The Role of Ethnicity, Religion and Diasporan Nationalism in Armenian, Jewish and Sikh relations to the Homeland,” in Mitchell Young, Eric Zuelow and Andreas Sturm (eds.), Nationalism in a Global Era: the Persistence of Nations, Oxford and New York: Routledge, 2007, p. 39
5 Fuad Dundar, Crime of Numbers: The Role of Statistics in the Armenian Question (1878-1918), New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2010, p. 6.
6 Selçuk Akşin Somel, Christoph K. Neumann, and Amy Singer, “Introduction: Re-Sounding Silent Voices,” in Amy Singer, Christoph K. Neumann, and Selçuk Akşin Somel (eds.), Untold Histories of the Middle East: Recovering Voices from the 19th and 20th Centuries, Oxford and New York: Routledge, 2011, p. 6; Susae Elanchenny and Narod Maraşliyan, Breaking the Ice: The Role of Civil Society and Media in Turkey-Armenia Relations, Istanbul: Istanbul Kültür University, 2012, p. 14.
7 Bargirk haykazian lezvi (Dictionary of Classical Armenian), vol. 1, Venice: Antoni Bortoli, 1749, p. 227, 239.
8 Nor bargirk Haykazian lezvi (New Dictionary of the Classical Armenian Language), vol. 1, Venice: S. Lazarus Press, 1836, p. 654.
9 See, for instance, Eduard Aghayan, Ardi hayereni batsadrakan bararan (Explanatory Dictionary of Modern Armenian), vol. 1, Yerevan: Hayastan, 1976, p. 323.
10 Hrachia Acharian, Hayeren armatakan bararan (Dictionary of Armenian Roots), vol. 2, Yerevan: Yerevan University Press, 1928, p. 694.
11 Guevorg Jahukyan, Hayeren stugabanakan bararan (Armenian Etymological Dictionary), Yerevan: Asoghik, 2010, p. 213.
12 Nor bargirk Haykazian lezvi, p. 39.
13 Astvatzashunch girk Hin yev Nor Ktakaranats (Holy Bible: Old and New Testament), Constantinople: M. Hohan, 1857, p. 1025.
14 Astvatzashunch matean Hin yev Nor Ktakaranneri (Holy Bible: Old and New Testaments), Holy Echmiadzin: Bible Society of Armenia, 1994, p. 1093.
15 Father Paschal Aucher and John Brand, A Dictionary English and Armenian, Venice: Armenian Academy of S. Lazarus, 1821, p. 213, 421; Rev. Matthias Bedrossian, New Dictionary Armenian-English, Venice: St. Lazarus, 1875-1879, p. 464.
16 Astvatzashunch matean Hin yev Nor Ktakaranneri, p. 697. The deuterocanonical books such as II Maccabees have not been translated into Western Armenian.
17 Yeznka Koghbatsvo Bagrevanda yepiskoposi Yeghdz aghandots (Refutation of the Sects by Yeznik Koghbatsi, Bishop of Bagrevand), Venice: St. Lazarus Monastery, 1926, p. 46, 140, 180.
18 The Eastern Armenian version gives the meanings of “evil,” “evildoing,” and “tragedy” (Yeznik Koghbatsi, Yeghdz agandots [Refutation of the Sects], A. A. Abrahamyan, translator, Yerevan: Hayastan, 1970, p. 48, 91, 110).
19 Nor bargirk Haykazian lezvi, p. 654.
20 The Homilies of S. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, on the Gospel of St. Matthew, Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1851, p. 835.
21 Nor bargirk Haykazian lezvi, p. 654.
22 Acharian, Hayeren armatakan bararan, vol. 2, p. 694; vol. 5, Yerevan: Yerevan University Press, 1931, p. 501.
23 Jahukyan, Hayeren stugabanakan bararan, p. 213.
"The Armenian Weekly," December 12, 2012

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