What's in a Name? Irreantum

The greatest challenge for persons interested in the meanings of proper names in the Book of Mormon has to do with those names whose meanings we already know, such as Rameumptom, “the holy stand” (Alma 31:21); Rabbanah, “powerful or great king” (Alma 18:13); and Irreantum,1 “many waters” (1 Nephi 17:5). Six such names with their translations appear in the Book of Mormon.2 Determining their meanings etymologically is a challenge because any attempt to trace their ancient roots has to come to results that match the translations given in the Book of Mormon and do so without many complicated steps. After all, the ancient people who conferred these names most likely did so with ease, without convoluted linguistic manipulation. On the other hand, names that are not accompanied by a translation are open to any number of possible interpretations because the text does not require a specific outcome.

This study of the name Irreantum has been a double challenge, for the reason just given and also because it was necessary to delve into languages outside the Northwest Semitic language group. For the latter reason, I asked two of my colleagues at Brigham Young University, Brian M. Hauglid and John Gee, whose specialties are respectively Arabic and Egyptian, to contribute to this article.

Biblical Hebrew and Egyptian are the obvious first sources to mine when looking for etymologies for Book of Mormon names. This is because Lehi, who spoke Hebrew, had also “been taught in the language of the Egyptians” (Mosiah 1:4) and had in turn apparently instructed his son Nephi in the same (see 1 Nephi 1:2). Hence, Egyptian and Lehi’s native language, Hebrew, are legitimate sources to examine for possible etymologies.3 We therefore expect that most Book of Mormon names, at least those on the small plates, would be derived from Hebrew or Egyptian or both. Irreantum and other names accompanied by a translation do not seem to fit into this category.

Why does our English Book of Mormon, the received text, contain both the transliteration, Irreantum, and its translation, “many waters”? Because translators of ancient documents normally render either the transliteration or the translation of a proper name, providing both seems rather unusual. Indeed, of the 188 transliterated proper names that are original to the Book of Mormon and reproduce their ancient form (of which Irreantum is only one example), only 3 percent, that is, six, have also been given a translation. Why just those six? Why are 97 percent of the unique Book of Mormon names given only in transliteration, such as Ether and Anti-Nephi-Lehi? The simplest answer must be not only that the name Irreantum and its translation were recorded on the small plates but also that the Prophet Joseph Smith dutifully rendered both.

Observing that both transliteration and translation were on the plates only moves the original question back one step:Why would Nephi include both the name and its translation on the plates? We can reasonably assume that Nephi believed that his audience would be able to read the script and the language in which the small plates were composed. (In order to avoid specificity at this time, we will call the language of the small plates of Nephi “Nephite.” In fact, the Book of Mormon never mentions what the language and the script on the small plates were.)4

If the name Irreantum is Nephite, Nephi would not have needed to supply a translation. He would have expected his Nephite readers to understand and the translator of his record to provide either the translation, as with Bountiful (1 Nephi 17:5), or the transliteration, as with Nahom (1 Nephi 16:34).5 The only rational reason for Nephi to include both the transliteration and translation is that he did not expect his audience to immediately grasp the meaning of Irreantum, because it was not a readily recognizable Nephite word. Irreantum may have been either a newly coined word in Nephite, thus not immediately transparent for persons who could read that language, or it could represent a borrowing from another language. In either case, Nephi would have felt obligated to provide a translation for an audience that knew only Nephite.

The literary device of supplying the translation of a foreign word or unknown phrase within a text is called a gloss and is well documented in ancient Near Eastern texts. Perhaps the most widely known examples come from the Amarna letters, which were discovered more than a 100 years ago in central Egypt and which were composed in the land of Canaan in the 14th century BC These letters, written by scribes who were not native speakers of the language that they were writing (Middle Babylonian), occasionally exhibit a Canaanite gloss,6 that is, a translation of a Middle Babylonian word into Canaanite as a helpful guide to the reader.

If Irreantum is therefore not Nephite, what language is it? Another way of stating our question is, To what language should we turn to provide a possible etymology for Irreantum? Hebrew and Egyptian can be ruled out because Nephi would have expected Nephites to know both languages and both scripts, just as he did.7 That is, if the small plates were composed in Egyptian and Irreantum were a Hebrew word, a gloss would not be necessary, and Limestone mountains rise dramatically from the Indian Ocean along the coast of south Arabia; similar waters were called “Irreantum” by Nephi. Courtesy S. Kent Brown. vice versa. Hence, when looking for an etymology for Irreantum, we need to look in languages other than Hebrew and Egyptian. At the same time, we need to restrict the search to roots that would allow the translation “many waters.”

During the eight years that Lehi and his family traveled in the wilderness toward the land of Bountiful, they either could have picked up enough of other local languages to coin exotic placenames or they could have borrowed non-Nephite place-names from local people, which is evidently the case with the placename Nahom. Such a language could be ancient South Semitic, which was used in the general area through which Lehi and his family traveled during their eight-year journey.

In turning now to Irreantum, and in particular the first part of the name, the root rwy, whose basic meaning has to do with watering,8 appears in South Semitic pre-Islamic proper names of Arabia. The most interesting name among these texts is ‘rwy, because it is both the name of a town9 and is phonologically fairly close to the assumed first element in Irreantum. This South Semitic place-name apparently exhibits a helping, or prosthetic, letter aleph attached to the beginning of the root, written here as [‘]. Even though we do not know the pronunciation of ‘rwy, prefixed alephs normally are added to break up an initial consonant cluster. Semitic languages do not easily tolerate an initial consonant cluster, such as str– in strong. Thus, the prefixing of the aleph strongly suggests that an initial consonant cluster is being broken up. Because the second letter, w, is a semivowel, it would not create a consonant cluster with r. More likely, the consonant cluster consisted of a doubled r. This would account both for the initial vowel and the double r of Irreantum.10

The existence of this root, rwy, in pre-Islamic South Semitic inscriptions might answer the question of what language other than Hebrew could explain the origin of Irreantum. Lehi and his family could have borrowed elements or whole words from one or more South Semitic languages either on their journey to Bountiful or even after they arrived in Bountiful. If they borrowed whole place-names, they might have been able to recognize the general meaning of the root because South Semitic is very similar to Hebrew. However, the form in which Irreantum occurs in the Book of Mormon might not have been immediately recognizable to a Nephite.

If we accept the possibility that irre can be derived from an ancient South Semitic root, perhaps similar to the place-name ‘rwy, with a meaning connected to watering, then only the –an and the –tum of Irreantum require explanation. Because ancient peoples of the Near East rarely if ever mixed languages in coining names,11 both of these elements must be explainable on the basis of South Semitic. This is precisely what we find. The first element, –an, is a common affix (a particle appended to a word) used in all the Semitic languages, including ancient South Semitic. It occurs “especially in abstracts,”12 meaning abstract nouns, similar to the use of the particle –ship in the English word kingship. An abstraction from “watering” seems to fit the requirement here that Irreantum have something to do with water.

As the element is rendered here, it cannot be a Hebrew form of the affix. Due to the so-called Canaanite shift, Hebrew and a few other Northwest Semitic languages have a long o where other Semitic languages have an (accented) long a. Thus, this common Semitic affix, –an, became –?on in Hebrew.13 Therefore, irre-an fits well what we might expect from a South Semitic word but not from Hebrew, from which we would expect irre-on. This may be the reason that at first glance Irreantum might not have been immediately transparent to the native Nephite reader.

The final presumed element of the name, –tum, could be derived from the fairly common Semitic root tm(m), which has meanings related to “completeness” or “wholeness” or “entirety,” as in the last word of the phrase Urim and Thummim. Thus, a phrase in Isaiah 47:9, which includes the element –tum and is translated in the KJV as “in their perfection,” literally means “in their entirety.” But “a more free rendering is in superabundance.”14 If we accept this explanation, then –tum in Irreantum could represent the common Semitic root tm(m). In keeping with our hypothesis above that irre and –an could be South Semitic, –tm also occurs as an element in pre-Islamic South Semitic names.15

To sum up, if Irreantum is a South Semitic name, it could be composed of irr-an plus –tum. These words would form a two-noun construct chain that would mean something like “watering of completeness” or “watering of (super)abundance,” a meaning that is compatible with the translation “many waters.” Admittedly, arriving at this proposed etymology required considerable dexterity and several conjectures. But all of the conjectures fall well within accepted Semitic philological norms.


Because some scholars in the past have proposed an Egyptian derivation for Irreantum, a glance at possibilities in Egyptian might be in order. Indeed, such a derivation, if it were clean and neat, would be desirable. It would obviate the need to propose Semitic language conjectures that cobble together a number of linguistic possibilities.

It has been suggested that Irreantum might be derived from the Egyptian phrase iiry’nd.t, attested only in a fourth-century BC Egyptian papyrus. On the surface this appears to be a good candidate for Irreantum. However, the suggestion stems perhaps from seeing the determinative for water as the writing of the word mw, “water.” The writing of both possibilities would be identical, iiry’nd.t mw. But reading the final signs as mw, “water,” is grammatically less likely than reading them as the water determinative. A possible later Coptic equivalent could be ερε-?-Μογ, where the question marks represent the word ‘nd.t, which is unattested in Coptic. We would need a Coptic form, *ωΝτε, from a hypothetical Old Kingdom ‘anvdat (where v represents an unknown vowel), in order to have a proper vocalization of Irreantum in Nephi’s day.

In addition, the passage in which this lone candidate for Irreantum occurs does not entirely support the meaning of “many waters.” The words of the passage that correspond to iiry ‘nd.t have been bolded in the following translation: “O lord of the slaughter that is beside the water of Busiris, who is over the water of the ocean, who extends the life of the chief of the palace, who lives and causes others to live, come that you may protect me from death today, and the terror and the coming of darkness because I am he who binds on heads and establishes necks, and who gives breath to the weary of heart” (Urk. VI 67). Though water is mentioned in the passage, the plain reading of the text does not seem to support a meaning such as “many waters.” Thus, the suggestion based on Egyptian, as morphologically tempting as the phrase iiry ‘nd.t may be, is not any better than the South Semitic proposal above, and in fact may not be as plausible. In addition, it does not explain why Nephi provided a translation.


In conclusion, the best solution seems to be the South Semitic etymology, irre-an tum, meaning “watering of completeness” or “watering of (super) abundance.” Perhaps future scholars will find a cleaner derivation in Egyptian or an even better suggestion from one or more Semitic languages. Nevertheless, future explanations would still need to explain why Nephi provided both the transliteration and the translation and would still need to account for each element in the name using accepted philological methods. The present South Semitic suggestion adequately addresses both issues.



1. The printer’s manuscript contains the spelling as we now have it in our 1981 edition of the Book of Mormon. The original manuscript of the Book of Mormon contains a partly readable spelling, Irreantum, where –rre– are only partially legible and the second a has been crossed out. See Royal Skousen’s critical texts, The Original Manuscript of the Book of Mormon: Typographical Facsimile of the Extant Text and The Printer’s Manuscript of the Book of Mormon: Typographical Facsimile of the Entire Text in Two Parts (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2001).

2. The complete list of six are Irreantum, “many waters” (1 Nephi 17:5); Rabbanah, “powerful or great king” (Alma 18:13); Rameumptom, “holy stand” (Alma 31:21); Liahona, “compass” (Alma 37:38); deseret, “honey bee” (Ether 2:3); and Ripliancum, “large, to exceed all” (Ether 15:8). In addition, several proper nouns are rendered into English without the transliteration of the ancient name, such as Bountiful and Desolation.

3. In addition to Hebrew and Egyptian, the following languages could provide help when looking for etymologies of Book of Mormon names, given here in the approximate descending order of importance: Northwest Semitic languages (of which Hebrew is one), such as Ugaritic, Phoenician, and Aramaic; South Semitic, such as Arabic and Epigraphic South Arabian; Assyrian and Babylonian (both are East Semitic languages related to Hebrew, though more distantly than the Northwest and South Semitic languages); Hurrian (a people mentioned in Genesis but who are not related to any other known ethnic group); Hittite (Indo-Europeans who are mentioned in the Bible); and Sumerian (an altogether unrelated language from Mesopotamia that died out as a spoken language about 1,400 years before Lehi left Jerusalem but continued to be used as a classic language until after the time of Christ).

4. Despite popular assumptions, nowhere in the Book of Mormon—small plates or Mormon’s abridgment—does an author or redactor ever state what the language of either set of plates was. Nephi’s statement in 1 Nephi 1:2 is ambiguous because it does not discuss which script he wrote in, leaving open the possibility that “language” could refer to either the spoken language or to the script. Only a thousand years after Lehi is a script ever singled out, and that passage applies to Mormon’s abridgment of the large plates of Nephi only and not to the small plates of Nephi, with which we are dealing (see Mormon 9:32–34). Mosiah 1:4 speaks of the brass plates only, not of the large or the small plates.

5. For example, in 1 Nephi 16:34, the chapter previous to the one in which Irreantum appears, Nephi provided only the transliteration of the place-name Nahom. By contrast, in the very same verse in which Irreantum appears (1 Nephi 17:5), he provided only a translation for the place-name Bountiful.Why provide both transliteration and translation for Irreantum when that is not the normal practice in the Book of Mormon?

6. I use the name Canaanite for simplicity’s sake, knowing that there is still controversy over what that term denotes and connotes. I use it here simply to designate the people in the Late Bronze Age who wrote the letters sent from Palestine to Egypt.

7. For hints at what Nephi and subsequent writers could expect their readers to know, see 1 Nephi 1:2; Mosiah 1:4; and Mormon 9:32–34.

8. In inscriptional Qatabanian the root rwy means “irrigation system” (Stephen D. Ricks, Lexicon of Inscriptional Qatabanian [Roma: Editrice Pontifico Instituto Biblico], 153). In Sabaic yhrwy[n] means to “provide with irrigation,” while rwym is a well or watering place (see Joan Copeland Biella, Dictionary of Old South Arabic: Sabean Dialect, Harvard Semitic Studies 25 [Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press, 1982], 482). Finally, in modern Arabic the root rwy is associated with water for drinking and irrigation (see Edward William Lane, An Arabic-English Lexicon [Beirut, Lebanon: Librairie du Liban, 1980], 3:1194–95).

This root, rwy, also appears in Hebrew and other Northwest Semitic languages. For example, Hebrew has hwr, which has the following meanings in its various verbal forms: Qal, “to drink one’s fill, to be refreshed”; Piel, “to give to drink abundantly, water thoroughly”; and Hif’il, “to water thoroughly” (see Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, CD-ROM version [Leiden: Brill],under hwr). In Ugaritic the root occurs also in a personal name, bn rwy, but the meaning of the name is uncertain (see Frauke Gröndahl, Die Personennamen der Texte aus Ugarit, Studia Pohl 1 [Rome: Pontificium Institutum Biblicum, 1967], 312).

9. G. Lankester Harding, An Index and Concordance of Pre-Islamic Arabian Names and Inscriptions (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1971), 38. (I have not yet been able to find the location of the town based on the information provided, partly because the BYU library does not have the relevant sources.) In addition, there are family, clan, and/or tribe names in pre-Islamic inscriptions, such as rwyn and rwym, containing the root rwy, which in the Arabic form rawiy means “abundant, well watered” (see ibid., 291).

10. Another possibility from pre-Islamic inscriptions, yrwy, is less likely because it is a personal name (see ibid., 668). Yet even this name carries the basic meaning of “watering” and exhibits an initial vowel before the root, though the y would not necessarily suggest a doubling of the r.

11. I am not aware of a single instance of an ancient Semitic name being composed of more than one language, though this may reflect more my ignorance than reality. Some scholars in the past have suggested that Jerusalem is composed of a Sumerian and a Hebrew word. This proposed etymology has been rejected by nearly all Hebrew scholars today.

12. Sabatino Moscati et al., An Introduction to the Comparative Grammar of the Semitic Languages (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1969), 82, §12.21

13. An example of where this shift appears in the Book of Mormon occurs in the place-name Jershon. This name represents no doubt the Hebrew root yrš, “inherit,” plus the Hebrew form of the abstractforming affix –øn. Possible exceptions to the Canaanite shift in Hebrew might be šulhan, “table,” and qorban, “offering” or “sacrifice” (see Moscati et al., Comparative Grammar, 82, §12.21).

14. Koehler and Baumgartner, Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon, under tov, 2,d. The phrase is ketummam.

15. See Harding, Pre-Islamic Arabian Names and Inscriptions, 136, under TM.