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If God is not good, what is the origin of “good”?

Last week’s blog post was devoted to the origin of the word god and the proof that it is not related to good. There, I half-promised to write about the etymology of the adjective good, though I knew that there is very little to say, not because the word lacks interest but because I can only repeat what other people have written about it. Still, the notes that follow, though unoriginal, may be of some interest to our readers.

Good is a Common Germanic adjective and turns up more than once even in Gothic, the oldest recorded Germanic language. The Gothic text is a translation from Greek of parts of the New Testament. Goths ~ gods (modernized spelling) render in it Greek agathós, khrestós, and kalós, that is, “good, kind, able, beautiful.” It occurs as an attribute of a servant, a soldier, and a shepherd and carries rather obvious connotations of efficiency, rather than “goodness.” Also, the words for “heart” and “work” occur in Gothic with this adjective, and there, too, the same overtones are obvious. We use the adjective good freely: good man, good food, good house, and so forth, but in Old Germanic, this word had the connotations “worthy, noble” and was much more often applied to people than things. In the Old English heroic poem Beowulf, an early line praises a good (possibly, strong, kind, and generous) king. Elsewhere, gōd (ō designates a long vowel) also means “efficient, strong, brave.” In Old Norse, this adjective can be safely translated as “efficient, noble.”

Medieval Scandinavia is rich in rune stones. They contain memorial inscriptions, mostly to the relatives fallen in battle, and the word for “good” occurs there with great regularity. The dead son or brother is often called good, obviously, “courageous, valiant, brave.” With time, the Christian overtones “virtuous, pious” (as in a good Samaritan, Good Friday, the exclamation Goodness gracious, and the like) became more and more prominent, and nowadays, good is a colorless epithet of approval (compare good for you). As always in such cases, the best etymology of good should reckon with the oldest senses of this word, among which “efficient” is the most prominent. (A parenthetic remark. Pay attention to the irregular degrees of comparison: good—better. A similar case is bad—worse.  It seems that good and bad were qualities that could not be “quantified,” like small—smaller, big—bigger, or old—older. This is an intriguing aside on so-called suppletive forms. See the post for 9 January 2013: “How come that the past of go is went?” Don’t missthe numerous comments following that old post.)

Why is bad ~ badly but good ~ well? One can spend a goodly part of one’s life thinking about the best answer.

In the etymology of good, the thorniest question is whether the Germanic word has anything to do with agathós. The Greek adjective has the same overtones as its Germanic counterpart. Homer’s usage is unmistakable. Agathós often occurs in his poems because, among other things, it fits the hexameter so well. And yet, the two words are, almost certainly, not related (I’ll skip references to the rich literature devoted to this question). The origin of agathós is unknown, and it is unclear whether, from the historical point of view, it is aga-thós “very fit for war, running fast” or a-gathós, with the obscure element a. According to an often-invoked rule, one word of unknown origin can provide no help in a search for the etymology of another opaque word. (Sorry for repeating this maxim with such regularity.)

The Germanic root of good was gōth-, but in the process of reconstructing an ancient root of Indo-European, Greek th does not correspond to Germanic th. Direct borrowing is out of the question. Other Greek words have been cited as possible cognates of good, but those hypotheses died without issue. With some regret, historical linguists began to look for a different etymology of good, and, it seems, discovered it. This is the etymology one can find, even if sometimes with a bit of hedging, in all modern dictionaries.

Goody Two Shoes: who could be better?
(Metropolitan Museum of Art via Wikimedia Commons)

Here are some words, presumably having the same root as good: Engl. gather (from Old Engl. gaderian) and (to)gether, Sanskrit gadh– “to cling to,” Latvian goùdas “honor, glory,” and especially the Slavic words with the root god-. Those words mean “fit, usable; to please, pleasing; profit; in advance; good weather” and in dialects, also “considerable; worthy, valuable; pleasant, pretty.” Equally instructive are Old Engl. (ge)gada and gæde-ling (both mean “companion, comrade”), with several cognates in Germanic denoting “friend; relative.” They always refer to being connected or fitting. Russian god means “year,” initially, as it seems, “a proper, good season for some work.” This semantic leap should not surprise us. In the remote past, people seldom needed a word for “a whole year,” perhaps mainly or only when they described a lamb or a calf as a yearling. Only later, some noun acquired the modern sense. The same is true of Engl. year. Its cognates outside Germanic usually mean “season; spring; summer.” Elsewhere, this root occurs in words meaning “to go, pass.” In Slavic studies, the root god– has also been compared with Greek agathós, but there, too, this comparison was eventually given up. Above, I wrote that the Germanic adjective could under no circumstances be borrowed form Greek. The solid Slavic connection makes the idea of borrowing from Greek into two branches of Indo-European even more improbable.

As a general rule, abstract meanings go back to concrete, more tangible ones. Before such a vague idea as that contained in the adjective good became universal, people seem to have asked themselves: “Good for what?” In our case, the answer is “good for being connected or fastened, for belonging together,” that is, “proper, fitting.” Today, as noted above, a man, a book, food, and anything, including weather and life, can be good or bad. Such was not the situation at the dawn of civilization.

King Hakon the Good, c. 920-961, one of the greatest Norwegian kings of the Middle Ages.
(Håkon den Gode og bøndene ved blotet på Mære, by Peter-Nicolai Arbo via Wikimedia Commons)

Rather long ago, I wrote several posts about the word bad (17 June, 24 June, 8 July, and 15 July 2015). One can see that the opposite of good is, from an etymological point of view, an even harder word than good. This result makes sense: “good” is, at least to a certain extent, concrete, but “bad” is only “not good” and can evolve from any unpleasant fact or sensation.

Let me finish this dry post on a lighter note. The poet Vladimir Mayakovski (or Mayakovsky) wrote several poems for children. One of them is called “What Is Good and What Is Bad.” On the Internet, I found two translations of it into English but will quote my own version of the opening lines:

“Once a boy approached his dad,

And he asked his parent:

‘Something isn’t quite apparent:

What is good, and what is bad?’”

A long series of answers follows, but, predictably, none of them deals with etymology, so that I think I should stop here. 

Featured image: Runestone U 240, Vallentuna by Berig via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Constantinos Ragazas


    The most relevant meaning here to the Greek word “agathós” is “pure, innocent”. Certainly not “efficient” which you made a big deal about!

    If you put your academic biases aside, you may find the roots to both good and god here.

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