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Etymology as a Battlefield: Whitsunday

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By Anatoly Liberman

Specialists seldom agree about anything (that is why they are specialists), and in the field of word history few etymologies are final. But today heated controversies regarding the origin of words seldom spill over into the pages of the popular press. At best, concerned individuals write to editors or Dear X and ask questions. Most of them begin with the statement: “My husband and I (variant: my colleagues in the office) cannot decide whether….” The editor of the word column or Dear X gives a cautious reply (sounding judgmental? God forbid!), intimating that opinions differ but that effect and affect should rather not be confused, that careful speakers distinguish lie and lay (though if you are a Midwesterner, go ahead and say: “I laid for a few minutes”—never mind what), and that the origin of boondoggle is uncertain, but according to — (fill in the blank), it comes from…. Unfortunately, in the English speaking world hardly any outlets for such questions and answers exist, whereas in Germany, for example, any respectable library subscribes to at least one of three language journals aimed at teachers, editors, and everybody trying to speak and write well. The Internet bears witness to the need for an authoritative English magazine specializing in such matters. Countless blogs invite comments on word origins, and people offer them. Etymology has gone underground and rots there.

There was a time in both England and the United States when lances were broken in open etymological tournaments. My database, with its more that 20,000 titles, shows that the history of some words, especially slang, was discussed mainly in Notes and Queries (including this great periodical’s local offspring), The Gentleman’s Magazine, The Athenaeum, The Academy, The Saturday Review, and so forth. The vehemence of those jousts cannot but fill one with wonder. The derivation of English words and phrases also took a good deal of space in books like John Timbs’s Notabilia; Curious and Amusing Facts about Many Things Explained and Illustrated (1872; printers occasionally put a semicolon in titles where we have a colon) and the much more reliable Nuggets of Knowledge by George W. Stimpson, first published in 1925 (it had a sequel and was reprinted as late as 1970). One of the bones of etymological contention was Whitsunday. A look at that old mini-tournament may perhaps be worth a minute. Whitsunday, it will be remembered, means the same as Pentecost, the seventh Sunday after Easter, celebrating the descent of the Holy Ghost upon the disciples. In Old English, Pentecost, the name of the Feast, appeared in the form pentecosten. Whitsunday (also in its archaic form) emerged about a century later. Pentecost is of Greek origin and means “fiftieth” (day after the numeral has been left out; with respect to the root, compare pentagon). The only serious question is: “What is Whit-”?

Several nonsensical etymologies of Whitsunday competed for recognition, of which two were especially hard to eradicate. The first denied any connection between Whit- and white and associated Whit- with wisdom, so that Whitsunday turned out to be a day on which wisdom was acquired or on which wise (“witty”) people were selected by some assembly. But wit never had an h preceding w, while the oldest forms of Whitsunday (hwit-) always did. Norman scribes could not pronounce the consonantal group hw and tended to omit the first letter. This fact is of no importance for the derivation of a native English word. The vowel of Old Engl. hwit- was long (it had the value of Modern Engl. ee). In words of more than two syllables, the first vowel regularly underwent shortening; hence the difference in the pronunciation of south and southern (despite the traditional spelling of both with ou), holy and holiday, homonymous with whole-ly and holly-day, and many others.

Supporters of the other etymology (a sizable crowd) traced Whitsunday to Pfingsten, which is a German modification of the Greek word. I am sorry to report that some reviewers of Hensleigh Wedgwood’s English etymological dictionary (Skeat’s once influential predecessor) and Timbs, the author of Notabilia, held the same view. In their writings, they never asked why in the 12th century the Old English name of a religious holiday should have been borrowed from German and what phonetic tricks transformed Pfingsten into Whitsunday. If I am not mistaken, cows are colorblind, so that a red rag cannot irritate a bull more than any other, but it is a pity to give up the idiom. The derivation of Whitsunday from Pfingsten (occurring in Old High German only in the dative plural as phingstenen) was to Walter W. Skeat like that proverbial red rag to a bull. An irascible man and a hard working scholar, he despised amateurs and had no patience for unprofitable guesswork or smug ignorance. Between 1877 and 1904 he wrote five letters to journals, four of them to Notes and Queries, on Whitsunday, and discussed it at length not only in his great dictionary but also in its concise version. And indeed, before 1400 no High German word was known to English speakers, who already had pentecosten. To boost his argument, Skeat cited the Old Icelandic analog of Whitsunday, unambiguously meaning “White Sunday.” However, the Scandinavian form may have been an adaptation of the Old English one. It tells us how the English word was understood in the North but may have no independent value (this is how we should interpret the remarks in the OED). And Skeat was right when he said as early as 1877: “It is, perhaps, as well to note that Whitsunday is a wretched popular corruption of Whitsunday-week.”

It is not absolutely clear what “white” has to do with Whitsunday. Modern dictionaries explain: “From a tradition of clothing the newly baptized in white baptismal robes on Whitsunday” (sometimes with probably inserted for safety) and refer, as Wedgwood and Skeat did, to Dominica in albis “Sunday in Whites,” which, however, was the name of the First Sunday after Easter but called this for exactly the same reason. Another suggestion about the color white has been offered by T. Oswald Cokayne, a reputable scholar, even if not a luminary in the area of etymology. Originally, he said, Whitsunday was a pagan festival celebrating the coming of summer, and young women appeared on that day in white clothes, “asking for a white clear summer sun.” Pagan and Christian rites merged in post-conversion Europe, and disentangling their roots is not always easy. The reference to Dominica in albis remains the strongest argument in favor of the view we find in our dictionaries, but even Skeat admitted that, although the origin of the word Whitsunday is non-controversial, we are allowed to argue over the reasons for the name.


Anatoly_libermanAnatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to blog.us@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

Recent Comments

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  2. Sharon Chmielarz

    Referring to your comments re adverbs on a recent MPR program:

    I agree with you, however, notice how powerful the adverb is (or is it a shadow of a once separable prefix?) in these lines from Keats:

    “O Moon! the oldest shades ‘mong oldest trees
    Feel palpitations when thou lookest in:

  3. Gary

    The Catholic encyclopedia
    http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01251b.htm
    points out that the Sunday after Easter is actually dominica in albis deponendis (the day you take off the white baptismal garment that you put on when you were baptised during the Easter midnight celebration which includes a baptismal ritual)

    It says that Whitsunday is the Sunday after Pentecost, rather than Pentecost itself, and speculates that the name derives from a similar ritual associated with Pentecost.

  4. Gary

    Sorry. I sent before checking. Their Whitsunday article says what everybody else says–that Whitsunday is Pentecost, and speculates that there was a special baptismal ceremony, analogous to the Easter one, at the vigil of Pentecost, so that there would be white garmnents to doff at Pentecost also.

  5. Godzjumenas Seminiskeengd

    In the ” Etymologisch Woordenboek” (Ed.Van Dale Utrecht/Antwerpen 1990)I find the following( I translate): >> MiddleDutch”witdonresdach”( Thursday before Easter), OldEnglish “hwita sunnandaeg” and OldNorse “hvitasunnadagr”, so called because on that day the reconciled penitents, clothed in white, were readmitted into the community of the church and were allowed to celebrate Easter. <<
    In Belgium and the Netherlands we celebrate "Wittedonderdag" (i.e.Whitthursday"). The English word "Whitsunday" has no direct equivalent in Dutch.

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