Strangely, both bless and curse are rather hard etymological riddles, though bless seems to pose less trouble, which makes sense: words live up to their meaning and history, and bless, as everybody will agree, has more pleasant connotations than curse. The root of the riddle consists in the fact that both verbs, even though their ties with the Christian ritual arouse no doubt, are isolated or almost isolated in English. One could have expected such words to have obvious Latin roots, like German segnen, Dutch zegenen, and so forth (all going back to Latin signāre “to make a sign”). Yet a short note on the isolation of bless is perhaps due here: Old Icelandic had blessa and bleza (the latter pronounced as bletsa; Modern Icelandic blessa), but this verb was borrowed from Old English. More suggestive is perhaps the existence of Westphalian (that is, Low German) blessen “to put a mark on one’s forehead” (for instance, on Ash Wednesday), but it is unclear whether the verb is native there.
Minsheu, our earliest English etymologist, cited Latin benedictare “to bless” (literally, “to speak well”), but the entries in Minsheu’s dictionary (1617) are a mixture of possible congeners and synonyms in several languages, so that one often wonders what to do with them. After benedictare, he listed German begehren “to covet, long for,” and there is no way of knowing whether he glossed bless as benedictare and begehren or looked upon both as related to bless. This fact would not have been worth mentioning if about three centuries later, in 1923, Friedrich Kluge, who had no access to Minsheu and who would hardly have consulted such a source even if he had known about its existence, derived Old Engl. bledsian directly from Latin benedictare (he opened his note with the following statement: “No etymologist has probably made bold to equate Engl. bless and benedictare”). The phonetic part of Kluge’s equation is weak. He uncovered a few cases of n becoming l in Germanic and elsewhere, but the difference between the sound shape of benedict(are) and bledsian is too great to support his hypothesis.
Apart from the probably nonexistent benedictare—bless connection, for many years lexicographers attempted to trace bless to blithe and bliss. Blithe “joyous,” when not a woman’s name (then it is spelled Blythe), is a rare, but hardly obsolete, word in Present Day English. Its cognate in Gothic meant “kind-hearted”; in Old Norse “pleasant,” and in Old High German “friendly.” Possibly, the initial meaning of the adjective referred to some color (pale?). The origin of several other old words beginning with bl– is also unknown. We don’t have enough evidence for ascribing an obvious sound symbolic value to them (for some ideas on initial bl– see my second post on the origin of the English adjective blunt: surprisingly many bl-words denote bad things). However, blessing and bliss are not bad, so that in this case sound symbolism provides no help.
The Old English forms of blithe and bliss were blīþe and bliss ~ blīþs respectively, while bless appeared in our earliest texts in the forms blētsian, blēdsian, and blœdsian (also with a long vowel in the root; þ had the value of th in Modern Engl. thin). The similarity between, let us say, blēdsian and blīþs is significant, though the change of ī to ē in the root cannot be accounted for. Yet even Skeat accepted this derivation. Let it be remembered that Skeat’s etymological dictionary appeared in fascicles (installments), and bless was, naturally, in the first one, dated 1879; the date on the bound volume of the first edition is 1882 (Skeat worked fast). As ill (or good?) luck would have it, in 1880 Henry Sweet, a great English philologist, published his etymology of bless. He derived the word from the form that, according to him, sounded like blōdisōn and had the root of the noun blood (Old Engl. blōd). “The original meaning of bless,” he explained, “was therefore ‘to redden with blood’, and in heathen time it was no doubt primarily used in the sense of consecrating the altar by sprinkling it with the blood of the sacrifice. Compare the Old Icelandic rjóða stalla í blóði ‘to redden the altar with blood’.”
This is an excellent etymology, though such an experienced man as Sweet should not have added, seemingly for good measure, the parenthetical phrase no doubt. In the corrections to the first edition, Skeat wrote about his own entry: “The etymology is entirely wrong.” He accepted Sweet’s idea, and so did almost everyone else. But from early on (beginning with Minsheu!), bless has been compared with the Germanic verb blōtan “to sacrifice.” Jacob Grimm, in his book on Germanic mythology, was not sure whether bless is related to this verb or to the cognates of blithe, and from time to time notes and even full-fledged articles appeared in defense of blōtan as the etymon of bliss. Murray knew both views but preferred Sweet’s solution. The post-Sweet publications were in German and Swedish, and in the English-speaking world they made no stir, especially because of the authority of the OED. Yet I would like to quote an enigmatic statement from the anonymous 1914 review of Henry Sweet’s Collected Works (Athenæum, July 18, 1914, p 70). Sweet died in 1912, and Henry Cecil Wyld brought out a volume of his papers in 1913. Among other things, the reviewer wrote: “On p. 217 we find an excellent example of Sweet’s phonetic method in his derivation of bless from blood, which, odd as it seems, is everywhere accepted as correct.” Odd as it seems! Apparently, the reviewer found the “excellent example” all wrong.
In 1958, Hermann Flasdieck, an outstanding Germanic and English scholar of the twentieth century, published an article in which he supported the derivation of bless from blōtan. Of necessity, I have to skip the numerous phonetic details that Flasdieck discussed and will confine myself to saying that his analysis is fully persuasive. Several leading German etymologists accepted it without any reservations, and so did Jan de Vries in his Old Icelandic dictionary, but the authors and editors of our “thick” dictionaries, including The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, copied their entries from the OED and Sweet.
One small hitch remains in Flasdieck’s exemplary essay. The origin of blōtan is highly disputable. Is this verb related to blood? If it is, Sweet will emerge partly vindicated. But for the etymology of bless the early history of blōtan is of secondary importance. The real trouble was clear to Kluge, though no one seems to have paid attention to his statement. Whether from blood or from blōtan, bless ends up in our scholarship as a relic of pagan practices. Christian missionaries usually made great efforts to coin names for the new religion that evoked no associations with traditional rites. Since they had the verb benedictare at their disposal, why did they stick so stubbornly to one of the most pagan words of the old ritual (and it meant “sacrifice,” not “bless”!). Did the proximity of bliss in all the Germanic languages save blōtan from extinction? Whatever the answer, since the missionaries tolerated this verb, we will too and conclude that in Anglo-Saxon England bless was derived from it rather than from blood.
Images: (1) “sneeze” by Tina Franklin, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr. (2) “The Sacrificial Lamb” by Josefa de Óbidos, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. (3) “Picture of linguist Henry Sweet” Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. Featured image: Female Pastor by Andrys Stienstra, Public Domain via Pixabay.