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In the word is the beginning

24 March 2016

Andrew Davison and Giuseppe Pezzini get to the root of things

Philip Lee Harvey/Cultura Ltd/SuperStock

The sleep of the dead? Ancient Roman cemetery, Tunisia

The sleep of the dead? Ancient Roman cemetery, Tunisia

ETYMOLOGY — the study of word origins — is frequently revealing, and often wise. If you have ever heard a preacher discuss the history of a word as part of a sermon, the chances are that you’ve heard the story of how we got the word “atonement”, a topic close to the heart of one of the earlier supplements in this series.The word emerged in the 16th century, congealed from phrases to do with overcoming enmity, such as “at onement” and “an onement”.

With salvation still in mind, Jürgen Moltmann pointed to some other word origins in his book The Source of Life (English translation 1997). The German word heiligen, for instance (to “make holy”, “hallow”, or “sanctify”) always has something to do with heilen (“healing”) and so in many languages healing has to do with being made whole. In English, “holy” and “whole” are closely connected, and not just phonetically. So the sanctification of life includes the healing of life that is sick, and the becoming-whole of a life that has become divided and split.

Keeping theological examples in mind, think of the promise offered by the following examples: “catechism” (from “let someone hear), “conversion” (from turn one’s face towards), “affection” (from “being struck by”), “redemption” (from “buy back”, or “ransom”), “ecclesia” (from “a place where one is called”), and “martyrdom” (from “witness”).

Think, too, of the roots of the word “grace” in the Latin gratia, where “gift”, “good-will”, “freedom”, and “thanksgiving” overlap (as they also do in the New Testament Greek word charis).


THIS sort of etymological mining for gold fell out of fashion in the 20th century, skewered on the observation — true in its own way — that a word means what it means now, to its current users, not what it happened to mean in the past. (James Barr was particularly critical in his 1961 book Semantics of Biblical Language.) The word “glamour”, for instance, derives from “grammar”, but in current English no one would associate the two, and probably rightly not.

That does not, however, rule out the usefulness of etymology, nor does it leave it as merely an antiquarian practice. It can indeed shed (or rekindle) light upon current language, just as knowing a person’s parents and grandparents can help us better to understand and appreciate his or her complexities.

As a way into that, consider the etymology of the word “etymology. Rather startlingly, it is in “science of truth”. That accords with the way in which etymology was used in the ancient world: not primarily as a historic pursuit about reconstructing the origin of the word, but as something rather more philosophical, as a reconstruction of the word’s true meaning.

According to many ancient theories, language degrades over time, and loses its connection with reality — its “truth”. With that, its ability to serve in the quest for understanding fades also. Some ancient philosophers, such as the Stoics, used etymology as an instrument to (re-)gain true knowledge of reality. For them, etymology was an exercise in cleaning language from the stains of ignorance and corruption.


ETYMOLOGY is especially common in poetry. To give just two examples of the many English poets who exploit etymology in a variety of different forms, Milton has a punch line, “New Presbyter is but Old Priest writ Large”, and Hopkins wrote that “Generations have trod, have trod, have trod/ And all is seared with trade“.

Indeed, we can helpfully think of it as a poetic act: poets — the artists of language — are those more entitled to “refurbish” words. Poets, we might also note, are characteristically interested not only in the act of writing, but also in the subsequent act of reading: they want the reader to strike words together in a way that sparks some significant new recognition.

Explorations of etymology outside of poetry can often have this character, too: when they work well, they become an “event” for the reader — one that delves into the depths of a word’s history to reveal something old, but also new; something not only “interesting” (a fact), but also “useful” for the present time; not only a relic of the past, but a light upon the present.


ETYMOLOGY should enjoy an honoured place among those who love words, not least as an attempt to regain a link between words and present-day reality. That often involves looking at the links between meanings and senses that can be found in the history of a word’s usage.

This usage, at various times in the past, may bear witness to an association of meanings or concepts that seemed obvious then, but which has now been lost, or obscured. Excavating that connection can highlight something that our culture has forgotten.

So, for instance, there were times and places where the association of “humility” with recalling that we are ‘”of or from the earth”’ was more obvious than it is today. We might forget that “Christ” in Greek (like “Messiah” in Hebrew) means “anointed one”; that a “sacrament” has something to do with an oath, a sacrifice, and a making holy, all at once; that “virtue” used to conjure up ideas of strength; or that a “church” is a “house” for the Lord (the kurion).

A “cathedral” bears that name because the bishop’s chair (cathedra) is there, and — since the chair was what you taught from in the ancient world — that reminds us that teaching is a central part of a bishop’s role.

Consider also that words have often been pressed into new uses deliberately, and that, when that happens, something is often being claimed about the link. So, for instance, no one had ever described a burial place as a “cemetery” (Greek koimeterion meaning “dormitory”) until Christians did. The audacity of using that word in this way — the only way we now know it — was a confession of belief in the resurrection of the dead.

Other etymological treasures are mysterious, such as the way in which languages across Europe form words for forgiveness out of the word for “gift”, adding some sort of intensifying prefix: for-giveness, par-donner (French), per-donar (Spanish), per-donare (Italian) and ver-geben (German) are examples. Others are complex and wide-ranging.

To save the best example until last, think of the entanglement between “trust” and “truth” (think of their overlap in “troth”), and, further back, with “abiding” and “faith”. That’s half of Christian theology in a single etymological web.


The Revd Dr Andrew Davison is Fellow in Theology at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Dr Giuseppe Pezzini is Fellow in Classical Languages and Literature at Magdalen College, Oxford.

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