Language Unique to the Book of Mormon: “On The Morrow Month”

The Book of Mormon records that Giddianhi, the leader of the antagonist Gadianton Robbers, wrote a letter to Lachoneus, the leader of the protagonist Nephites, demanding that they relinquish all their property and join their cause. In his letter he gives an ultimatum:

“And behold, I swear unto you, if ye will do this, with an oath, ye shall not be destroyed; but if ye will not do this, I swear unto you with an oath, that on the morrow month I will command that my armies shall come down against you, and they shall not stay their hand and shall spare not, but shall slay you, and shall let fall the sword upon you even until ye shall become extinct.”

It was a few years ago that the peculiarity of Giddianhi’s ultimatum really stood out to me for the first time.

As an English major with a particular interest in literature written before the 20th century, I had read a variety of texts from the Old English, Middle English, Renaissance, Early Modern,18th and 19th Century periods. At the time I had been reading a great deal of early American writing, often in the original spelling and grammar, which had been written between 1500 and 1860. I had just finished a handful of books published around the time when Joseph Smith published the Book of Mormon and the phrase “…on the morrow month…” in Giddianhi’s letter really stuck out as an unusual construction.

I wondered if “on the morrow month” was in common usage in the 19th century, when Joseph was translating the Nephite record, but had since fallen out of use. Or maybe it was a construction adapted from the Jacobean language of the King James Bible. I had never run into it in any of my other reading, so I started to investigate.

Now, I’m not a scholar, and this is a blog post not a thesis, so I’ll leave it to the professionals to look into it more rigorously if they desire, but here is what I found:

The word morrow derives from the Old English word morgen meaning “morning” (which Dutch and German speakers will recognize as a cognate). In Middle English the word became morwen. Eventually the ‘-en’ was dropped, in the same way that it was dropped in the word maiden to give us the word maid, and morw became morrow through the natural process of pronunciation.

Even though they were sometimes combined as early as 1500, the word tomorrow was usually written as separate words “to morrow” until the 1750s, and started to be used to mean “the next day” as early as 1275.

So morrow and tomorrow refer to the morning and by extension the next day. Month, on the other hand is derived from the cycle of the phases of the moon. The Oxford English dictionary doesn’t have any examples of either morrow or tomorrow becoming divorced from their relationship to “morning” and used as generic terms to indicate the next period of any time measurement, like a month. So Joseph Smith’s translation of Giddianhi’s ultimatum seems to be far outside the standard English usage of morrow.

Of course, just because it’s not in the Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t mean that it has never been used this way, so I thought I do a little more digging. I started Google searches to try to find examples of the phrase “morrow month” unrelated to the Book of Mormon. I found a few instances worth noting.

The least obscure appearance of the words “morrow month” is in a lesser known poem by the famous Robert Browning called Time’s Revenges which he published in 1845, fifteen years after the Book of Mormon.  Here is the pertinent excerpt with added emphasis:

He does himself though,—and if some vein
Were to snap to-night in this heavy brain,
To-morrow month, if I lived to try,
Round should I just turn quietly,
Or out of the bedclothes stretch my hand
Till I found him, come from his foreign land
To be my nurse in this poor place,
And make my broth and wash my face
And light my fire and, all the while,
Bear with his old good-humoured smile

The earliest use I found was in volume 8 of the Journals of the House Of Commons published in 1803, but recorded from legislative records originating in the 1660s, where it is used twice:

“Ordered, That the Committee of Privileges and Elections do, on To-morrow Month, being the Twelfth of May next, proceed to hear and determine the Cause touching the Election for the Town of Newport in Cornwall between Mr Ford and Mr Edgcombe.“

“Resolved, &c. That the House be Called over again on To morrow Month, being the Six-and-twentieth Day of April next .”

One thing to notice is that these early occurrences in the Journal of the House of Commons refer to specific dates. The first one is recorded on the Julian calendar date Lunae 13 Aprilis 1663 and the second one on Lunae 28 Martii 1664. (Britian didn’t adopt the Gregorian calendar until 1752)

“To-morrow Month” here seems to mean specifically the same day as tomorrow but in four weeks. So in the first case, recorded on Monday April 13th, the “to-morrow” would be Tuesday April 14th, plus a month would be Tuesday May 12th.

Here are is the Julian calendar for April and May 1663 with the dates colored to illustrate (blue = today, green = to-morrow, red = to-morrow month)

April 1663
Mo Tu We Th Fr Sa Su
       1  2  3  4  5
 6  7  8  9 10 11 12
13 14 15 16 17 18 19
20 21 22 23 24 25 26
27 28 29 30

May 1663
Mo Tu We Th Fr Sa Su
             1  2  3
 4  5  6  7  8  9 10
11 12 13 14 15 16 17
18 19 20 21 22 23 24
25 26 27 28 29 30 31

The same meaning is obvious in the second instance, in which “to morrow” refers to Tuesday March 29th, 1664 and the corresponding day in the next month is April 26th, just as the text states.

Looking back at Browning’s poem, he seems to be using it in this same way, although for poetic effect rather than to specify a particular date.

Another obscure use is in a 1911 book by Stephen Graham called A Vagabond in the Caucasus:

“Sleeping in the copse, even in more abundance than yesterday, are next month’s flowers: time and the sun are softly wooing them. A few mallow and lily and rose will have faded away and given place to new revellers, new festivities. The morning sun, warmer every moment, promises for to-morrow, to-morrow week, to-morrow month, the blooming of the poppy and the ripening of the vine.”

Like Browning, Graham appears to be drawing upon the obscure usage we see in the previous legalistic Journals for poetic effect, with the addition of a progression from tomorrow, to the same day next week, and then to the corresponding day next month. And like Browning, it post-dates the publication of The Book of Mormon.

Another interesting example is from Sweated industry and the minimum wage, published by Clementia Black in 1907:

“In many shops that meal is neither good nor sufficient; and even if good the food is monotonous. Each day of the week has generally its appointed bill of fare. In many houses the assistants know what the dinner will be to-morrow, to-morrow week, to-morrow month, to-morrow year. I have an Islington shop in my mind where the menu for years past has been this:– Sunday: Pork. Monday: Beef, hot. Tuesday: Beef, cold. Wednesday: Mutton, hot. Thursday: Mutton, cold. Friday: Beef, hot. Saturday: Beef, cold, and resurrection pie.”

All of these examples are consistent with the etymology of to-morrow because they are referring specifically to the next morning or next day of the week, and then referencing that same day of the week in the subsequent week, month, or year.

There are a handful of other examples of this “to-morrow month” construction in works previous to, contemporary with, and after Joseph Smith’s publication of The Book of Mormon.

But the Book of Mormon text doesn’t use “on to-morrow month”.  It says “on the morrow month”.  If we add the definite article to the search and exclude Book of Mormon citations, we come up with some false positives because Google does not differentiate between punctuation, so that “the morrow month” is treated the same as “the morrow. Month” and “the morrow, month” by the search. Once the false positives are excluded, we find that there isn’t a single literary instance of “the morrow month” outside of citations of the Book of Mormon itself.

This suggests a few possibilities:

1. Invention

Joseph Smith came up with a completely unique use of the word morrow when translating the Book of Mormon which changes its meaning to “next” or “proximate” instead of “morning.” The word occurs 41 times in the text of the Book of Mormon, and in all other cases follows the standard usage. Nobody else before or after him has used the word in this idiosyncratic way.

2. Transcription Error

The original translation of 3rd Nephi chapter 3 might have read “…I swear unto you with an oath, that on to morrow month I will command that my armies…” and it might have been subsequently changed accidentally to the when being copied for printing. In this case, Giddianhi would have been naming a specific date on which he would command the attack, and not just a fuzzy “next month”. However, my copy of Royal Skousen’s The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text does not show that he has identified any changes to 3rd Nephi Chapter 3 Verse 8. In the image of the 1828 printer’s manuscript below, it says “on the morrow month” though that doesn’t mean that it didn’t say “on to morrow month” in the original dictation. It is interesting, however, that the word month appears to have been crossed out and then replaced again for some reason in the printer’s manuscript. This may indicate that someone recognized the unusual construction and started to change it by removing month, but then decided for some reason that it should stay, though that is pure speculation.

3. Hebraism

Maybe “morrow month” is somehow related to the the Jewish Machar Chodesh which means literally “Tomorrow Month” or “Tomorrow New Moon”. When the Sabbath falls on the New Moon it is customary to read 1st Samuel 20:18 in which, in the KJV translation, Jonathan says to David, “To morrow is the new moon: and thou shalt be missed, because thy seat will be empty.” From what I understand, the Jewish people refer to these New-Moon Sabbaths with the words of Jonathan taken from this text. We could speculate that the words Machar Chodesh evolved in the Nephite language into a name for the next new moon, or the next sabbath on a new moon. Additionally, though machar is translated as “morrow” in the KJV, it is also translated in more vague terms as “in time to come” (see for instance Joshua 4:6). So it is possible that “morrow month” is an awkward English representation of what is a more natural construction in the Nephite language that evolved from Hebrew.

4. Insufficient Information

Perhaps I have missed something that shows that “on the morrow month” is in fact used elsewhere in English, and that it would have been familiar to Joseph Smith and his 19th century audience.

Perhaps some people with more knowledge and experience in these subjects than I have can investigate these or other possibilities further. Whatever the case, this peculiar little phrase appears to be unique to the Book of Mormon, and demonstrates that the text is more complicated and original than a cursory reading suggests.

Please feel free to share any additional insights or ideas.

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3 Responses to Language Unique to the Book of Mormon: “On The Morrow Month”

  1. I think number 3 is likely.

    There are other Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon. When I was working at Royal Skousen’s research assistant, he had me look up every instance of the construction “the king [name]”–it apparently isn’t a common English usage, but is common in either Hebrew or Egyptian (I can’t remember which!).

  2. Very fun post. Not something I would have ever thought to look for. As I read the top part, I wondered if other languages used a similar phrase. Thanks for answering that question for me.

  3. I found this blog entry searching for something different but possibly related. I’ve recently wondered about the commonly used phrase “to be in tune with the spirit” in Latter-Day Saint lexicon. The scriptures do not have even one instance of the word “tune”. Has this word been used in this context since early in church history or has it crept into our language as a parallel concept to tuning in a radio, a twentieth century concept? Has it been used in this religious context by any other religious groups? An archaic usage of tune, according to Merriam-Webster, is to be in harmony. I don’t know if this interests you but I’m not sure how to pursue it. There are probably other current idioms of the Latter-Day Saints that have entered our language in more modern times.

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