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Words as a Window to the Past

by Anatoly Liberman

The entries in the great Oxford English Dictionary (OED) reveal, although, naturally, in broad outline, the documented history of thousands of words. Some of them surfaced in texts more than a millennium ago, others emerged in Chaucer’s works and later, and still others were added to the vocabulary of English within the memory of those still living. If a word was not recorded before 1250 or 1420, we needn’t conclude that it was coined in that year. The contrary is true: since an author used what looks to us like a new noun, adjective, or verb, he or she must have assumed that the readers would understand it; hence it must have been around long enough. The innocent-looking phrase long enough conceals a serious difficulty: what is the time lag between a word’s appearance in a manuscript or printed book and the date of its birth? Nowadays, media spread recent coinages far and wide, and they often become common property, but in the past, a word restricted to a small area may have turned up in a poem, official document, or private letter centuries after it gained currency in local speech. We are fortunate when even a single old attestation is extant, for hundreds of words disappeared without a trace. Other words have a rich history, but discussion of their age makes no sense. The reason is that the earliest written documents in English date to the eighth century, and at least some words in them go back to hoary antiquity. As far as we are concerned, they have existed “forever.” But what we lose in ascertaining their chronology we gain in tracing their origin, for occasionally they tell us something about the customs and institutions of the remotest epochs.

One of such words is sin. Today it has unmistakable Christian associations. Yet the speakers of English and other Germanic languages were pagan when this word came into being. (Germanic, not a synonym for German, refers to a group of languages, of which English is one.) In pagan religions, one may offend a deity and be punished for it, but the concept of sin as a transgression of the divine law is absent from them. Consequently, Old English synn must have meant something close to what the modern word means, but not the same. This is where historical linguistics becomes a window to the past. The word sin, whose root could have different vowels (as also happens in modern words: compare drink ~ drank ~ drunk), is most probably related to several adjectives meaning “existing, real, true” and “guilty.” Old Norse sannr and Latin sons are typical examples of such adjectives. Modern English sooth, as in forsooth, soothsayer, belongs with them, though it has lost n in the middle. The question is how “true” could have coexisted with “guilty.” It is precisely such questions that occupy etymologists. Friedrich Kluge, the author of the first reliable etymological dictionary of German, believed that the answer lies in the early customs of Germanic society. Sooth, he suggested, was originally that which is true and which is revealed in confession. He may have been partly right. Other old formulations, such as “language regards the guilty man as the man who it was,” carry little conviction. The tortured phrase the man who it was sounds odd, but more importantly, it is not the function of language to “regard” anything or anyone: it only reflects the attitudes of the speakers. The legal process appears to have assumed the existence of guilt as reality, whence the connection between truth and transgression. Old Icelandic syn “denial” fits into this scheme well: “being there”—“standing accused”—“guilt / denial.” Conversion to Christianity made it necessary to find words for the concepts previously unknown to pagans. The translator of the fourth-century Gothic Bible chose to call “sin” wrongdoing, whereas speakers of West and North Germanic retained an old noun but endowed it with a meaning that would have been alien to them even one century earlier.


Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday.

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2 Responses to “Words as a Window to the Past”
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  2. :) Peace and love..

    I just had to check this article too, and I find the meanings for the origins of sin “existing, real, true” and “guilty.”

    so the Finnish word “synti” =”sin” origins in “synty” meaning “birth; genesis” is even more like “sin” of the above mentioned meanings..

    And what makes me laugh, here looking for distant or far fetched (sorry my perfect English if I make mistakes.. English is not my native language) explanations.. The Finnish word “kiltti”, that is pronounced just like “guilty”.. is an adjective meaning “obedient, nice; tender character..”

    I might think, that in the Finnish language the original meanings of the words are saved like in a refrigerator.

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