Lehite noun 1. Grain or Herb used by Zeniffites for food, ca. 200 BC (Mosiah 9:9)


SHEUM is a Book of Mormon hapax legomenon. It occurs in a list with food items, namely, corn, wheat, barley, NEAS (another Book of Mormon hapax legomenon), and fruit seeds. Therefore, SHEUM is a food item. Though it appears in a list of seeds and grains, the context in Mosiah 9:9 allows the possibility that SHEUM, along with NEAS, need not be a grain or a seed.[1]

The fact that the Prophet Joseph Smith did not translate this name, but rather transliterated it, indicates that he did not know of an English word for this grain or food item. Therefore, SHEUM cannot be equated with any English names of seeds or grains attested by their English name in the Book of Mormon. Additionally, any suggestions for an etymology probably should also be narrowed to a New World food for which the Prophet would not have known the English translation. Thus, SHEUM is probably not to be equated with wheat, barley, rye, oats, garlic,[2] onion, sorghum, millet, lentils, pulse, peas, squash, beans, perhaps even emmer wheat,[3] etc. Native American grains or food items that Joseph Smith might not have been familiar with could include amaranth (JLS), jocote (mombin), manioc (cassava) (RFS), possibly quinoa (PYH), chiles (JG), etc.

Over the years, several suggestions for an etymology of SHEUM have been proffered and have gained traction in some circles. The discussion here will treat these earlier suggestions before other possibilities are presented.

SHEUM might not have an ancient Near Eastern language origin, i.e., it might have been borrowed into Lehite from an indigenous vocabel native to the Americas but unknown to Joseph Smith. In light of this possibility, the suggestion of Maya ixim (pronounced ishim) “maize” would be intriguing[4] if it were not for the inclusion of “corn” in the same passage where SHEUM occurs.[5]

On the other hand, SHEUM may be a Semitic or an EGYPTIAN word used for a New World plant. Therefore, looking for a Near Eastern derivation, even if the meaning of the root does not match the parameters outlined above, is appropriate.

A tempting suggestion has been made that SHEUM might be derived from Old Akkadian šeʾum which has a wide range of attested meanings, including “barley, wheat, grain, cereal, pinenuts,” etc. There are two issues with this suggestion. First, for various reasons, if SHEUM were to be derived from Old Akkadian šeʾum, it would have to have been brought to the Americas by the JAREDITES during or shortly after the Old Akkadian period when šeʾum still retained the case ending u, and the m of mimation. It would then have been passed to the Mulekites, and eventually given to the NEPHITES.[6] Second, there are some questions concerning the reading of the Sumerian sign ŠE from which Akkadian šeʾum supposedly derives, that make a direct borrowing from Sumerian unlikely.[7]

But even given these possibilities, SHEUM cannot mean “barley” or “wheat” for the reasons already mentioned above, i.e., barley and wheat are included in the same verse with SHEUM.

The EGYPTIAN noun sm, however, seems to offer a possible etymology. It means “herb, herbage, vegetables, plants,” etc.[8] In Demotic (a later script and dialect of EGYPTIAN roughly contemporary with LEHI) this noun appears as both sm and sym,[9] pronounced sim in Coptic (JG).The EGYPTIAN s appearing as a Semitic š would present no problems[10] (JG). Thus SHEUM, meaning a New World herb or vegetable for which Joseph Smith did not have a word in English, could have been derived from EGYPTIAN sm.

It might be tempting to equate SHEUM with HEBREW sěʾâ, a grain measure. HEBREW sěʾâ is cognate with Akkadian šeʾatum "milled-grain," and sūtum, "a measuring vessel,"[11] which (like šeʼum) are ultimately derived from Sumerian ŠE.[12] However, it is unlikely that HEBREW sĕʾâ (Akkadian sūtu) and Akkadian šeʾum are related. While sūtu is middle weak, šeʾum appears to be final weak. Additionally, samakh and shin are not easily mistaken. Therefore, HEBREW sĕʾâ is probably not the origin of SHEUM, especially since sĕʾâ does not explain the final m.

Other possible starting points in HEBREW are not particularly fruitful. For example, HEBREW has not produced any appropriate words built on šʾm, šʿm, š̴ām, š̴īm, or š̴ūm (for this latter root, “garlic,” see below). The HEBREW noun šōham has been defined on the basis of Akkadian siāmu (“red, brown”), as meaning “red, brown, redness,” a plausible name for a grain or herb. Less fruitful would be Akkadian šâmu, “to buy.” šiʾāmu, “to determine, establish.”

A long shot is the HEBREW word for garlic, šūm, from a root šûm, with a medial waw or long u vowel (Akkadian šūmu, Sumerian SUM, Arabic tˍūm, Aramaic tūmâʾ). It only occurs in the plural in the HEBREW Bible.[13] Besides the obvious philological problems, this suggestion is unlikely because Joseph Smith would have been able to provide the translation “garlic” instead of a transliteration.

Several other EGYPTIAN nouns are distant possibilities, namely, šmʿ meaning "rush”[14]; šmʾ.t, "granary;"[15] and šmʿ, "southern," which is used to refer to a type of grain.[16] The final weak nature of all three and the feminine ending on the second one make these suggestions unlikely.

See also Sheum Variants


Deseret Alphabet: 𐐟𐐀𐐊𐐣 (ʃiːʌm)


  1. Corn, wheat, barley, and “all manner of fruits” are all preceded by “of,” indicating a genitive relationship with “seeds.” SHEUM and NEAS are not preceded by “of” and therefore do not necessarily stand syntactically in a genitival relationship with “seeds.”
  2. For a discussion of “garlic,” see below.
  3. Emmer wheat is not native to the Americas, although barley is: “…extensive archaeological evidence also points to the cultivation of little barley in the Southwest and parts of Mexico.” Michael T. Dunne and William Green, “Terminal Archaic and Early Woodland plant use at the Gast Spring Site (13LA152), Southeast Iowa,” Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology (Spring 1998), 8; John L. Sorenson and Robert F. Smith, “Barley in Ancient America,” FARMS Update, December 1983 and December 1984, reprinted in John W. Welch, ed., Reexploring the Book of Mormon: The F.A.R.M.S. Updates (Provo: FARMS/SLC: Deseret Book, 1992), 130-132.
  4. Mark Wright in a personal communication, 9 October 2012. Bruce Warren has also suggested that ixim might stand behind some Book of Mormon names. See Meridian, 2005, online at
  5. Though corn in the King James Bible always means “grain,” and can be assumed in one (Mosiah 9:14) of the three passages where it appears in the Book of Mormon, the other two passages (Mosiah 7:22 and 9:9) do not lend themselves to mean “grain,” but rather “maize.” It must be admitted that maize comes into English through Spanish from Arawakan, the native American language group of the Carribean and much of South America.
  6. Old Akkadian šeʾum contains the nominative case ending u and the m of mimation. Neither the case ending nor mimation for a singular noun exist in biblical HEBREW. Additionally, post Old Akkadian šeʾum, i.e., Babylonian and Assyrian, lost the consistent use of the case ending and mimation, especially in the Iron Age of LEHI’s day. To be more precise, by Middle Assyrian and Middle Babylonian times, the case endings were no longer being used correctly for case and number. In Neo-Assyrian times, “no syllabic writing of šeʾu is attested” (notice also the lack of mimation). The rare instances of Sumerian ŠE in Neo Babylonian should not be considered seriously because they are too late to have influenced LEHI, and because the sign ŠE is probably to be read as uṭṭatu. See also Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the Univ. of Chicago. U & W. (Chicago: Oriental Institute/Glückstadt: J. J. Augustin, 1956-2010), 349, 356-357; Ibid, 17 “Š” Part 2:354-355; and Wolfram von Soden. Akkadisches Handwörterbuch. (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1965), 1222.
  7. Sumerian ŠE lacks the nominative case ending u and the m of mimation that are necessary if SHEUM were to be derived from ŠE. In no case that I am aware of did HEBREW retain a case ending or mimation when it did borrow an Akkadian word that ultimately was a borrowing of a Sumerian word. The two best known examples of a borrowing of a Sumerian word through Akkadian into HEBREW are hêkal and kissē. Additionally, there is some variance in how the sign ŠE is read when it means “barley, grain, etc.” Both šeʾu and uʾu are possible. See MZ #579 (p. 374), middle of the page.
  8. Raymond O. Faulkner, A Concise Dictionary of Middle EGYPTIAN (Oxford: Griffith Institute, 1962), 225.
  9. Wolja Erichsen, Demotisches Glossar (Kopehagen: Ejnar Munksgaard, 1952), 430.
  10. HEBREW š is represented as an s in EGYPTIAN 28% of the time (James E. Hoch, EGYPTIAN Words in EGYPTIAN Texts of the New Kingdom and Third Intermediate Period [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994] 433), and EGYPTIAN s is a HEBREW š about 33% of the time (ibid., 436). The sound shifts are thus possible.
  11. Hayim ben Yosef Tawil, An Akkadian Lexical Companion for Biblical Hebrew: Etymological-Semantic and Idiomatic Equivalents with Supplement on Biblical Aramaic. (Jersey City: KTAV, 2009), 255, citing “S.” Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the Univ. of Chicago. (Chicago: Oriental Institute/Glückstadt: J. J. Augustin, 1956-2010), 420a; Wolfram von Soden. Akkadisches Handwörterbuch. (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1965), 1064a.
  12. Akkadian sūtu, cognate with biblical sĕʾâ, meaning “a measuring vessel,” occurs in the same context in a cuneiform text with the word for (barley) grain, šeʾum. See Hayim ben Yosef Tawil, An Akkadian Lexical Companion for Biblical Hebrew (Jersey City, NJ: KTAV 2009), 255.
  13. Compare the Samaritan Pentateuch šuwwamәn.
  14. Wolja Erichsen. Demotisches Glossar. (Kopehagen: Ejnar Munksgaard, 1952), 508.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid, 509.
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