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A Missionary Imposition (or a rambling sermon on miss/mess/mass and their kin)

By Anatoly Liberman


Probably everybody knows that Christmas, despite one s at the end, is a compound made up of Christ and mass.  But few, unless they are word or church historians, have followed the intricate development of the word mass.  In the 16th century, Martin Luther and the theologian Claudius de Sainctes derived mass from Hebrew missah “oblation; sacrifice”; this derivation still has supporters.  Their opponents pointed out that such New Testament words as were coined in Hebrew (for instance, messiah and amen) came to Europe from Greek, but the Greek authors of the Christian epoch did not use missah.  Closer to our time, opinions were divided over the original meaning of mass: did it designate “service” or (since mass mainly occurred in situations connected with the Eucharist) “feast”?  Here mess “dish of food” gave trouble to etymologists.  Is it a doublet of mass?  And where does mass “a body of matter” (as in massive) come in?

Perhaps the most confusing part in the history of mass involves phonetics.  The word’s putative Latin etymon is missa, but Old English had mæsse and messe, both dissyllabic (æ designates the sound we hear in Modern Engl. mass).  However, this difficulty has been more or less overcome.  Popular Latin (the form of speech that served as the foundation of the Romance languages) is called Vulgar Latin.  In that language, many vowels changed their articulation.  Among others, i and u became e and o.  This is a common change on the linguistic map of the world.  Thus, in many English dialects, both British and American, sit has merged with set.  In similar way, missa became messa, and this is the form French and German inherited (messe, Messe).  By contrast, Dutch mis preserved the Classical Latin vowel, and the original form is familiar to lovers of music from Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis (incidentally, Beethoven was by far not the only one to have composed a piece with this title).  The Anglo-Saxons borrowed the Latin word among many others that came to them with Christian missionaries.  In England, the most prestigious dialect of the late Old English epoch was West Saxon, but numerous words that were used by the speakers of the southern part of the country and that have continued into Modern English originated in Kent (this is especially true of Middle English).  In the Kentish dialect, the vowel e acquired a broader pronunciation and turned into æ.  The shift changed messe to mæsse.  As can be seen, the resulting form was twice removed from Latin missa: first i became e, then e became æ.  If this reconstruction is correct (that is, if Modern Engl. mass owes its form to Kentish), the phonetic riddle exists no longer.  An explanation along such lines has been adopted by the most authoritative works on the history of English, but it is not the only one, just as the derivation of mass from Latin missa is not the only one.  Be that as it may, what did Latin missa mean?

Here again we depend on a traditional explanation that at first blush looks rather fanciful, but it may be right.  Latin missa first turned up in texts in 385.  The word was applied to various services, though mainly, as already noted, to the Eucharist.  At the end of the service, the congregation was told to leave with the formula ite, missa est “go, dismissed.”  Missa is the perfect passive participle of mittere “to send,” but the form is feminine and makes sense only if a feminine noun like concio “congregation” was meant but not said.  Another attempt to explain the odd feminine consists of glossing it as “what has been put on the table.”  In any case, the formula ite, missa est existed and is “thought to have been used at that point of the mass when the catechumens were dismissed, and the communion service followed; but it appears to have referred originally to the dismissal of the congregation at the end of the mass, and to have been applied, by an easy transfer, to the service itself” (The Century Dictionary).  It may not be immediately obvious that the transfer was easy.  (A catechumen, it will be remembered, is a new convert, not yet baptized, who is preparing for the initiation and is being catechized by a catechist.)

As time went on, mass acquired the broad sense “celebration.”  Hence such words as Candlemas, Childermas, Lammas, Martinmas, Marymas, Michaelmas, and Roodmas.  Of those Lammas is the only quite incomprehensible one to modern speakers.  Even its Old English etymon lammasse must have sounded obscure, for it developed from hlafmæsse (with assimilation in the middle: fm to mm) “loaf-mass,” that is, “bread-feast (service?).”  It was the festival of the wheat harvest, observed on the 1st of August and “is supposed to have taken its name from the practice of offering first fruits at the service of the mass on that day, in the form of the loaves of bread” (The Century Dictionary).  There is also kermis, literally “church mass.”  In German, Messe, in addition to “mass,” means “fair” (as in Buchmesse “book fair”), while Kirmes, a counterpart of Engl. kermis, denotes any carnival and is a much better-known word than its Engl. cognate.

By a way of conclusion, another quick inroad on phonetics will be necessary.  Christ, unless it is a modern family name, rhymes with iced, but the first element of Christmas rhymes with kiss.  In Middle English, the rule set in, according to which long vowels were shortened before three consecutive consonants.  That is why child rhymes with wild, but the first syllable of children rhymes with gild.  For the same reason, we have a short vowel in Christmas.  Later t was lost between s and m, but the harm had been done.  If the analogy of the famous scene from Alice in Wonderland can be pressed into service here, the cat (it was a Cheshire cat) disappeared but its smile lingered forever.  May it also play on your lips during this holiday season and beyond.

Anatoly 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 him care of [email protected]; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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  1. […] has nothing to do with mass or mess, but it sounds like them, and since I have been meaning to write about masher ‘lady […]

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