|Lehite noun||1.||Directional device given to LEHI by the Lord, ca. 600 BC. It is described as a “ball” (1 Nephi 16:10), called a “director” (Mosiah 1:16) and a “compass” ( 1 Nephi 18:12), and only later in Alma 37:38 is the transliteration “LIAHONA” given.|
Alma 37:38 declares that LIAHONA by interpretation is a “compass,” that is, an instrument for inscribing circles, or perhaps even a circle or globe itself. In a more general sense, LIAHONA might connote an aid to help find the desired direction. Therefore, whatever etymology is proposed must not do violence to these meanings of the word “compass.”
The fact that “compass” is the interpretation of LIAHONA might suggest that LIAHONA was not immediately recognizable to the native Lehite speaker. This may have been due to a shift in the language between LEHI I’s day and ALMA II’s mention of the word about 500 years later, or it may be that the word is not part of the base Lehite vocabulary, i.e., it may come from another language base, perhaps EGYPTIAN. I believe the latter to be more likely. I am unaware of any proposed EGYPTIAN etymologies.
Reynolds & Sjodahl (1:188) point out that this need not mean the mariner’s instrument known and used widely since the 12th c. AD, for the English word “compass” means “a circle or a globe in general, a round, a circuit,” which describes the shape of the IAHONA, the “curious ball.” They derive the name from Hebrew l, “to,” + yah “Yahweh,” + ʾon, an EGYPTIAN city On (= Greek Heliopolis, “city of the sun”). From this they derive the meaning “to God is light” or “of God is light,” adding that the EGYPTIAN form of Hebrew ʾon is *annu** (R&S 1:229; Reynolds, Dictionary of the Book of Mormon, p. 303; Sjodahl, Authenticity of the Book of Mormon, p. 11; and reiterated in Ludlow, Companion to the Book of Mormon, p. 113; similar is). This etymological explanation is rather unlikely because ancient Near Eastern people did not mix languages, especially in the onomasticon.
Even more unlikely is the suggestion from Milton R. Hunter and Thomas Stewart Ferguson Ancient America and the Book of Mormon, p. 71, to derive the word form Hebrew lahab, “point” + hemnah, “whither” (as cited in SDR, p. 168).
Yonatan Shunary, upon first opening the Book of Mormon, identified the word LIAHONA with a Jewish gemmatra designating the leader of a swarm of migrating bees in the desert (Abraham in Egypt, p. 255, n. 80).
Cf. Book of Mormon LEHONTI
See also Liahona Variants
Deseret Alphabet: 𐐢𐐌𐐈𐐐𐐄𐐤𐐈 (laɪæhoʊnæ)
- “Compass” should not be confused with the magnetic compass which first came into use in the West generally in the *Middle Ages. While it is possible that the magnetic compass was known in the East earlier, this cannot be assumed for the purpose of providing a denotation for the Book of Mormon name. It is however possible that the Plates might have used a word for some sort of path finder, in which case, the prophet Joseph Smith could have rendered the word loosely as “compass” in the sense of an instrument to help find the way.
- Jonathan Curci "Liahona: 'The Direction of the Lord': An Etymological Explanation." Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 16, no. 2 (2007): 60-67.
- Daniel H. Ludlow A Companion to your Study of the Book of Mormon. Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 1969.