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.

The oldest attestations of yeghern appear in the Armenian translation of the Bible in the 5th century.

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 meaningcharik (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”).11It 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:

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

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

Yeghernbelonged 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.

Notes

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.

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Vartan Matiossian

Born in Montevideo (Uruguay) and long-time resident of Buenos Aires (Argentina), Dr. Vartan Matiossian is a historian, literary scholar, translator and educator living in New Jersey. He has published six books on Armenian history and literature (five in Armenian and one in Spanish), and scores of articles in Armenian, Spanish, and English. He is currently the executive director of the Armenian National Education Committee in New York and book review editor of Armenian Review.

10 Comments

  1. Thanks for the article.
    I’m really tired of this subject. I know you’re trying to explain the difference between
    “Medz yeghern” and Genocide but hoe cares. Politicians always twist the words so its irrelevant hoe said what. The definition of what happened in 1915 to the Armenians in Turkey, according to UN Genocide resolution in its all points, was a GENOCIDE that’s already been established.
    Let them call it what they want to call it , it’s not going to change the fact. In court only hard evidence matter not words. The hard evidence of Genocide has been proven and presented, case closed. We need to work on the sentencing and reparation. Turkey is guilty of Genocide and it should pay the price.
    That’s what we should be working on, get individual Armenians in all over the world to take turkey and its government to UN court. There we’ll have the chance to explain the difference between Medz Yeghern and genocide.
    Sighn me up I’m ready to go to court in Jacque A. vs. Turkish government in case of Genocide committed against my family.

  2. John
    why have you waited for so long to go to the UN court? When are you going to ?lodge your case? Please let us know the details

    • Turk:

      You don’t know?! Because as a result of Ottoman Turkish barbarity, near-all population of Armenians was mass exterminated — after that there was a democratic republic in 1918-1920 that was again attacked by drunkard pedophile Mustafa K. — then the Bolshevik forces invaded the republic — then it became part of the USSR — then it became independent again at the times of a conflict — then AzeriTurks started all-out war over Armenian enclave of Artsakh — then their Turkish ilk joined them by imposing blockade of Armenia and refusing to establish diplomatic relations — then outnumbering AzeriTurks pitifully lost but still war monger today.

      As you see, there were more pressing matters for the survival of the nation. But don’t worry: your ilk will not get away with mass murder of innocent people.

      In the meantime, how long did you think before inventing such a ridiculous pen name as “john the turk”? Did you invent it or someone else helped you? John was one of the most revered Christian saints, a peaceful, tender, God-loving person. How can he be in tandem with a “turk”, a representative of a nation of which fellow-Muslim Arabs say the following: “Where the Turks’ horse treads once, the grass never grows again.”

    • Turk,

      Are you blackmailing us just like Turkish government does to US? We are doing what we must do.
      If we go to UN court many things are to be brought up in prosecuting Turkey. That includes the Genocide, and all the activities of post Genocide era which includes denial, lies, educational blockades, international effort to block teaching of genocide, the hiding of mass graves for decades up until 2006, and more. Even lands are fair game.

      Unfortunately, the UN is doesn’t run independant of NATO. Their efforts are interwoven and can be affected by the other. This brings Turkey and neareast security as high priority of the major player, United States which can single handedly gather followers to deploy forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, or any country.

      And because of the strategic priority for US, I gues the ifluence in NATO to side with Turkey can tricle down to UN decisions.

      But, when Turkey runs out of that benefit we will jump in.

      But, Turkey does have major achili’s heel of weaknesses. We will see.

  3. Lets first define what “TURK” is before we proceed to the differences between Yeghern or Genocide, or before we go to court.
    What say you “John the Turk”? How long do you need to find out what “Turk” is? Let me know if you need any help.
    Little hint: Turks are originally from the ALTAI MOUNTAINS of MONGOLIA and are Asiatic, (meaning ASIAN looking) people, like Uzbeks, Tajiks, Turkmens and Mongolians.

    Jhon the Turk are you a Turk?

  4. Jacque, the purpose of changing terminology by the Turkish lobby, is to get away with their crime, and we must be very careful. If we are not, pretty soon this phrase will be used to un-legalize something which Turkey is legally liable for, that is, Genocide. Being guilty of genocide and being guilty of massacre are not equivalent. The former has legal implications, the latter not. Mr Matiossian is doing a great job in his research and pointing this out. I must say I am surprised at the Armenian authors using this un-legal term pointed out in the beginning.

    • Dear KEVORK.
      Thanks for your reply. I’m not undermining the work of the author, but does it really matter what Turkey or anyone else is saying . It’s not going to change the fact . A criminal always assumes innocence and tries to downscale he’s crime. The court decides the degree of the crime according to evidence, that’s first degree, second or even Genocide. As was the case in the Serbian war crimes.
      What I’m saying we don’t need all this effort to change what people are calling the events that happened during the ottoman rule over historic Armenia from 1894 to 1922, we know and have the proofs that it was a GENOCIDE.
      We spent 100 years gathering evidence, time is now before the last surviver of the 1915 GENOCIDE dies, to roll our sleeves as one country, one nation, one historic people and take Turkey to international court and have a judgement once and for all. You know we can do that, right.
      Then we’ll see what politicians calls the event of 1915.

  5. Jacque, I believe what Kevork is saying is that the two main terms Armenians have used, Medz Yeghern and Tseghasbanutium, BOTH have legal implications, and both point to the same crime. It is not as if Medz Yeghern did not originally have legal implications and then Tseghasbanutium did. What has been done by Turkey and others is to rob Medz Yeghern of its legal, moral meaning and try to convince the world that it always just meant calamity and use that to say that’s all 1915 was about. That is a lie and a very damaging one. Yes, let’s roll up our sleeves as one nation, one historic people and reclaim the meaning of our language for ourselves.

  6. Jacque, I may have misread Kevork’s comments. When he says, “I must say I am surprised at the Armenian authors using this un-legal term pointed out in the beginning”, it is not clear whether by “un-legal” term he means Medz Yeghern itself or the “un-legal” meaning those authors give it, calamity.

    Kevork, would you please clarify your point?

  7. Let’s all remember, there are no real Turks in Anatolia, just Turk wannabes. Within one generation of the first Seljuk invasion (and how many were there at the time? not many), all the new ‘Seljuks’ were half-Armenian. That number was further diluted over the centuries, to the point that all Ottoman sultans (and therefore, their descendants) all had either Armenian, Greek or Circassian blood. There is no pure Turk in Anatolia….it is a myth. And by the way, that glorious leader of the new Turkey, aka, Ataturk, wasn’t Turkish at all…an Ottoman perhaps, but like most with Balkan or Salonikan roots, hardly a trace of anything Central Asian or Turkish in his veins, and no connection to Anatolia whatsoever.

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