Etymology of “ark”

This is an arcane matter (I use the adjective advisedly), but I am wondering about the etymology in English of the word “ark,” as in Noah’s. It is an odd word, used only of this particular ship and not of any other. It seems clear that there is a connection to the Ark of the Covenant. My consideration concerns a far less clear connection.

So, at Genesis 6:14, we read “”Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch.” (KJV– I’m using this translation on purpose). The texts beneath it are: 

  • Hebrew:  ‏עֲשֵׂ֤ה לְךָ֙ תֵּבַ֣ת עֲצֵי־גֹ֔פֶר קִנִּ֖ים תַּֽעֲשֶׂ֣ה אֶת־הַתֵּבָ֑ה וְכָֽפַרְתָּ֥ אֹתָ֛הּ מִבַּ֥יִת וּמִח֖וּץ בַּכֹּֽפֶר׃
  • Septuagint:  ποίησον οὖν σεαυτῷ κιβωτὸν ἐκ ξύλων τετραγώνων νοσσιὰς ποιήσεις τὴν κιβωτὸν καὶ ἀσφαλτώσεις αὐτὴν ἔσωθεν καὶ ἔξωθεν τῇ ἀσφάλτῳ
  • Vulgate:  Fac tibi arcam de lignis lævigatis; mansiunculas in arca facies, et bitumine linies intrinsecus et extrinsecus.

You can see that KJV’ s”ark” seems to derive from Jerome’s”arca” in the Vulgate not the Greek kibotos or Hebew taybah.

Now, at Gen 9:13, we read “I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth” (KJV).The texts beneath that are: 

  • Hebrew: ‏אֶת־קַשְׁתִּ֕י נָתַ֖תִּי בֶּֽעָנָ֑ן וְהָֽיְתָה֙ לְא֣וֹת בְּרִ֔ית בֵּינִ֖י וּבֵ֥ין הָאָֽרֶץ׃
  • Septuagint:  τὸ τόξον μου τίθημι ἐν τῇ νεφέλῃ καὶ ἔσται εἰς σημεῖον διαθήκης ἀνὰ μέσον ἐμοῦ καὶ τῆς γῆς
  • Vulgate:  arcum meum ponam in nubibus, et erit signum fœderis inter me et inter terram.


For rainbow, Jerome uses the standard Latin word “arcus,” bow or arch.

OK,what I am wondering is this: Could it be that our odd English word “ark” ultimately derives from a sort of word-play on Jerome’s part to align the means of salvation (arca) with the token of the covenant (arcus)? 

Arcane, no?

About Uncomely and Broken

I am a classicist in Sewanee, Tennessee.
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2 Responses to Etymology of “ark”

  1. timtrue says:

    I would have said it came from Jerome, but you’re there already. And now that you’ve brought in wonder about the possible connection between the rainbow and the ark, yes, am thinking that’s got to be it. The rainbow is the sign of God’s promise; the ark is the ship of promise (that delivered humanity from extinction). There’s also this, from 1 Peter 3: “God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you.” TT

  2. Thanks, Tim. Jerome’s wordplay is most famous for the malum/malum pun in Genesis 3 which impugns the poor apple. But now, doing a little actual research, I see Matthew Krauss mentions the arca/arcus pun in a footnote in his 2017 VC supplement, Jewish, Christian, and Classical Exegetical Traditions in Jerome’s Translation of the Book of Exodus.

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