How Graceful is Melville's Whale?
I've tentatively begun re-reading Herman Melville's masterpiece, Moby-Dick, and one word kept puzzling me, preventing me from making progress: חן.
This word, "chen," looked like the Hebrew word for "grace," but Melville defined it as "whale." I couldn't dredge up a whale for that, so I finally pulled my Gesenius Hebrew dictionary from its shelf and checked. Only "grace."
So . . . what's this about a whale, I wondered.
I went to Google Books and found a snippet of explanation:
[The] most accurate Hebrew word for whale was תנין, used in Genesis i,21 and Job vii,12, which is transcribed in the Roman alphabet as tannin. What Melville apparently wrote was תן (tan), the hypothetical singular, which did not occur in the Old Testament. (Melville, Moby-Dick, University of Michgan, 1952, with introduction by Nathaniel Philbrick, page 579)Mystery solved . . . or is it? This snippet implies that Melville got it right but an editor got it wrong. But perhaps Melville inadvertently misperceived "sea monster" (תן = tan) as "grace" (חן = chen), mistaking the letter "tav" (ת) for the letter "heth" (ח). Or did Melville perhaps intentionally conflate "grace" (חן = chen) with "sea monster" (תן = tan) in some deeper irony? Such is the opinion of Michael West:
Moby-Dick begins with a bogus Hebrew etymology, causing editors no little confusion, but it is perhaps no accident that the Hebrew characters Melville supplied form the word not for whale but for grace. (West, Transcendental Wordplay : America's Romantic Punsters and the Search for the Language of Nature, Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2000, page 333)West cites pages 1-6 of Neal Schleifer's article "Melville as Lexicographer: Linguistics and Symbolism in Moby-Dick" in Melville Society Extracts (Volume 98, September 1994), which can be read in full online. Schliefer's analysis is speculative but intriguing, for he notes on page 2 that the letter "heth" (ח) of the word "grace" (חן = chen) introduces an "h," and he suggests that a quote from Hackluyt supplied by Melville shortly prior to the erroneous "grace" offers a clue that the 'error' is intentional:
While you take in hand to school others, and to teach them by what name a whale fish is to be called in our tongue, leaving out, through ignorance, the letter H, which almost alone maketh up the signification of the word, you deliver that which is not true.Is Schliefer correct? Possibly, given the Hackluyt quote, but Schliefer's following, overly ingenious reading of Melville's 'erroneous' Greek as a miswritten "Christos" is about as hard to swallow as the story of Jonah.
So who is right, and where lies the truth? Such questions never end . . .