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Religious terminology: the etymology of "god"

Religious terminology: the etymology of “god”

A few days ago, I received a letter from a well-educated reader, who asked me whether the English words god and good are related. Dictionaries, he added, deny the connection, but he preferred to think they are cognate. I answered him that the dictionaries are right and promised to answer his query in this blog. I might have added that no one should have an opinion about the origin of words, because their past should be investigated, not guessed.

To be sure, everything depends on what dictionary one uses. Until the beginning of the nineteenth century, lexicographers did not doubt the god / good connection. But as early as 1828, Noah Webster, despite his penchant for fanciful etymologies, wrote: “…I believe no instance can be found of a name given to the Supreme Being from the attribute of goodness. It is probably an idea too remote from the rude conceptions of men in early ages.” He was quite right, even though the epithet rude cannot satisfy us today. Almost a hundred years later, the etymologist for The Century Dictionary, an excellent multivolume reference work, repeated Webster’s conclusion almost verbatim. Perhaps I’ll devote another post to the adjective good, but first things first.

Both god and good are very old words, and the definitive origin of neither has been found. Both are etymologically obscure, and their similarity is due to chance. In Old English, the word god sounded as it does today, that is, god, with a short vowel. By contrast, the Old English for “good” was gōd, in which the vowel was long, approximately as in Modern Engl. Shaw (if you don’t pronounce it like Shah) or horse, but without r. Short and long o never alternated in the same root, and, to make the case quite hopeless, o in god goes back to a form with the vowel u. This is the easy part. Good god sounds fine, but not to a language historian or a student of religion.

A pagan invocation. The Oxford Etymologist. Religious terminology: the etymology of "god"
A pagan invocation.
(Engraving after L. Lombard, Wellcome Collection via Wikimedia Commons)

We have no way of knowing when the word god was coined, but assuming that it is native, it did not refer to a single deity, because before the Conversion, the ancestors of the Germanic-speaking people, like the Greeks and the Romans, believed in multiple gods. Pay attention to the evasive statement in the previous sentence (“assuming that it is native”). More than once, cautious scholars suggested that we are dealing with a borrowing, though they of course could not pinpoint the lender. When a word refuses to yield its etymology, the idea of borrowing occurs as a way out. Saying that a word is a loan from some lost language (substrate) is tantamount to admitting that we’ll never reconstruct its source. To be sure, god may have been adopted by Germanic speakers from the religious practices of some native tribe, but we’ll continue our story in the hope that the word does have an ascertainable origin.

A religious libation. The Oxford Etymologist. Religious terminology: the etymology of "god"
A religious libation.
(“Libation of Artemis and Apollo at omphalos” via Wikimedia Commons)

Monotheism came to Europe with Christianity. Moreover, whatever forces were believed to control people’s destiny, let me repeat: they appeared to humans as collective forces (gods, not God), and the words designating them tended to occur only in the plural. Three grammatical genders were distinguished: masculine, feminine, and neuter. Characteristically, the plurals just mentioned were often neuter plurals: no idea of male or female humanoids stood behind them. The same holds for the noun meaning “god.” Germanic mythology is lost, though some bits and pieces can still be picked up, and there is one shining exception. In Iceland, in the first half of the thirteenth century, two books, both now referred to as Edda, were written, and they remain our main sources of Germanic (or at least Scandinavian) pagan mythology. The word we need appears there in the neuter plural form goð (ð has the value of th in Engl. the). Later, in Iceland, the word was changed to guð, acquired the masculine gender (because of the reference to Jesus), and even changed its pronunciation.

For some time, etymologists looked on Persian khodá “deity” as a possible source of god, but it turned out that khodá appeared in Persian late, and the idea had to be abandoned. Later, two hypotheses began to compete. 1) Supposedly, there was some word like Germanic guthom, perhaps meaning “the being who is worshipped.” In Sanskrit, we find hu “to sacrifice” and huta “one to whom sacrifice is offered.” Sanskrit h– and Germanic g– go back to the same source, so that the phonetic correspondence is fine. God turned out to be a noun derived from a past participle with the senseone invoked.” This is an old hypothesis. Both Walter W. Skeat, the author of the still most authoritative etymological dictionary of English, and James A. H. Murray, the great first editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, knew it. As far as I can judge, today, this reconstruction has no supporters.

Karl Brugmann, 1849-1919
(By Louis Pernitzsch via Wikimedia Commons)

The other old etymology, also known to Skeat and Murray, though modified half-a-century ago, starts with Sanskrit juhóti “he sacrifices; pours oil into fire” and its cognates in other languages. This reconstruction suggests that the idea of pouring was later transferred to the god, the receiver of the sacrifice. Thus, we are left with two choices: god means either “the one invoked” or “the one libated.” Though some specialists have cautiously endorsed the second etymology, no consensus on the subject exists, and indeed, one wonders how an ancient past participle, either “the invoked one” or “the libated one,” became an Old Germanic noun. I’ll skip a host of technical details that seemingly compromise the first reconstruction but will add that no one seems to be bothered by the fact that the singular form for the Old Germanic word designating “god” hardly existed: people, as noted above, did not believe in God, but in a multitude of higher forces we call gods. Such is the state of the art. As usual, it is easier to refute a suspicious or wrong etymology than to prove the worth of an allegedly reasonable one.

In 1889, two scholars (one of them being the great Karl Brugmann) suggested, independently of each other, that god is related to the Sanskrit word ghōrás “horrible.” This idea (now forgotten, though at one time, it was known to the best etymologists) seems to be more realistic than those mentioned above, but it shares the weaknesses of both: the cognate is remote, and it turned up in Sanskrit, with no supporting material in Greek, Latin, Celtic, Baltic, or Slavic. By the time of the conversion to Christianity, the speakers of Old Germanic knew the word guþ and used it for the name of the Supreme Being, but it remains a riddle why they chose it and what it meant before the conversion. It certainly did not possess the connotations of goodness, as evidenced by the related adjective giddy. This adjective turned up in Old English and meant “mad, possessed,” rather than “dizzy, with one’s head swimming.” Contact with gods was understood as a situation fraught with danger. Enthusiastic (an adjective containing the root of the Greek word for “god”) also carries the overtones recognizable in giddy: no invocation, no libations.

A modern idea of being giddy. The Oxford Etymologist. Religious terminology: the etymology of "god"
A modern idea of being giddy.
(By Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash)

God may but need not be a borrowing from some unknown language. It may or may not have a cognate outside the Germanic group, but, if its truly convincing etymology happens to be discovered, the root will probably refer to fear of the forces beyond our control or their power over humans, or their being shining, omnipotent, and beyond reach.

Featured image: “The Council of the Gods” by Raphael via Wikimedia Commons

Recent Comments

  1. Gavin Wraith

    May I dare to suggest a dessert of days, divinities and devils, with a side-order of daemons?

  2. hamiltonbeck

    Have you written a post on word creation by way of euphemism? Gosh darn!

  3. Anastas Shuke

    Good news!
    Yes, god & good are connected in the langue of origins. The Sumerian term for god, di-mir, means that He is the One who knows everything, God knows very well. Respectively: di = know & mir = well, that is, God = di-mir.
    For more, have a look at academia.edu Anastas Shuke paper “On the Origins and Continuity of Sumerian term An dingir god”.

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