The Etymology of კანონი

Donovan Nagel
Written by Donovan Nagel

I was sitting with my Georgian host family a few days ago while they were discussing something they saw on the news and I overheard them say a word that immediately grabbed my attention - კანონი (kanoni).

It was in the context of a news story on some legal matter (I have no idea what they were reporting on but could establish the general gist from what I saw on TV).

I sought clarification, “ras nishnavs kanoni?” (“what does kanoni mean?”). ”Law”, they answered.

Actually, the way the word was used in this particular situation was უკანონო (u-kanon-o) which means illegal/unlawful (the prefix u and suffix o combining to indicate lack of).

The reason why this interests me enough to write this post is that I’ve encountered this word in several other languages, namely Greek, Hebrew and Arabic.

In Arabic (and Farsi) the word currently used throughout the Middle-East for law is قانون (kanun) (قانوني meaning legal). This is not an Islamic term (there are other terms used for Islamic law) and was probably borrowed from Greek or Hebrew, though I’d be curious to know what the Coptic term/s for law is/are to see if there’s a correlation.

I don’t think that קנה (kaneh) was used in Ancient Hebrew in any legal sense (I could be wrong), but it was certainly used to indicate measurement. There are dozens of usages of קנה in the Hebrew Bible, such as:

“And behold, there was a wall on the outside of the temple all around, and in the man’s hand was a measuring rod (קנה) of six cubits, each of which was a cubit and a handbreadth. So he measured the thickness of the wall, one rod (קנה); and the height, one rod (קנה).” Ezekiel 40:5

The Koine Greek term for law was νομος, but throughout the New Testament are repeated usages of the Hebrew/Aramaic-derived term κανων (reed/measuring stick/limitation/rule) in place of νομος. For example:

“And as many as walk according to this rule (κανόνι), peace be on them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God.”

Gal. 6:16

“We, however, will not boast beyond proper limits (κανόνος), but will confine our boasting to the sphere of service God himself has assigned to us, a sphere that also includes you.”

2 Cor. 10:13

Those with a general knowledge of Church history might also recognize that the Latin word canon is derived from this, and eventually came to mean ‘a collection or catalog of sacred texts’, i.e. the Bible.

I just find it fascinating that in Georgia there is such strong linguistic evidence of over 1700 years of culture heavily influenced by the Eastern (Georgian) Orthodox Church. I wish I had time to study the language properly.

I’ll also note that I’ve noticed a other words in Georgian that are the same or very similar to their Arabic (and Hebrew) equivalents, e.g.

  • საათი - ساعة (hour)
  • ზეთი - زيت (oil)
  • თარგმანი - ترجمة (translation)