Tuesday, February 03, 2009


Today was Groundhog Day in America, and what better day for me to come out of my burrow. I wasn't sure if there was a Hebrew word for groundhog, but it turns out there is: marmita מרמיטה or marmuta מרמוטה. Now the groundhog (also known as the woodchuck, land beaver or whistlepig) is from the genus Marmota (which also includes other varieties of marmots). It would seem that the Hebrew derives from the Latin. That wouldn't leave much to write about.

However, Klein writes something very strange. He provides the following etymology for marmota:

Of uncertain origin. It is certainly not borrowed from Latin mus ( = mouse) and mons ( = mountain), nor related to French marmotte ( = marmot).

The first etymology that Klein rejects is precisely that given for marmot in the Wikipedia article:

The name marmot comes from French marmotte, from Old French marmotan, marmontaine, from Old Franco-Provençal, from Low Latin mures montani "mountain mouse", from Latin mures monti, from Classical Latin mures alpini "Alps mouse".
It is true that other sources give a different etymology for marmot:

French marmotte, from Old French, perhaps from marmotter, to mumble, probably of imitative origin.

Whatever the origin of "marmot" - is it really possible that the Hebrew word marmuta, which means groundhog - a type of marmot - isn't related to the word marmot or marmotte?

But what's even stranger here, is that Klein doesn't actually give a definition for the word! Preceding the etymology, where he usually gives the definition, all he writes is:

in שנת מרמוטה 'deep sleep'
What does that mean? We know groundhogs hibernate, so if this is a metaphor, it doesn't seem to sever the connection between marmuta and marmot.

If we go to Even-Shoshan, we get a slightly better picture. He identifies the marmita as a marmot (specifically the Arctomys Marmota). He then goes on to say that the word marmuta appears in midrashim, as part of the phrase sh'nat marmuta שנת מרמוטה or tardemat marmuta תרדמת מרמוטה. This literally means "sleep of marmuta", and it is the phrase that Klein mentioned earlier.

However, the word actually appears only once in the midrashim, in Bereshit Rabba 17:5 -

רב אמר: שלש תרדמות הן תרדמת שינה ותרדמת נבואה ותרדמת מרמיטה

There are three types of slumber (tardeima) - the slumber of sleep, the slumber of prophecy and the slumber of marmita.

Clearly, the sleep of marmita is the deepest type of sleep. But what does marmita mean? The various commentators on the midrash offer a number of suggestions. Jastrow says it is a corruption of the word מדממה and means "trance". Some say it is related to the Latin dormito - "to be sleeping" (as in "dormant"). The Arukh says it means like stone, like marble, as in the Latin marmor and Greek marmaros (from which "marble" derives). And some commentators make mention of an animal that hibernates.

While it is possible that more current research could identify the meaning of marmita in the midrash, it seems to me that we have a word that appears once and only once. And just like those hapax legomenons in Biblical Hebrew, we might be left guessing as to the original definition.

But whether it happened earlier or later, I think the association of marmita with marmot is a natural one - both in terms of the sound of the word, and the deep sleep.

No comments: