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Religious terminology continued: bless your heart, my dear - by the Oxford Etymologist

Religious terminology continued: bless your heart, my dear!

From God (or rather, god) to bless. But before turning to the history of the word bless, I would like to respond to the questions asked in connection with the good God dilemma (see the previous post). It might be better to leave the answers for my next gleanings, but I receive comparatively few letters and comments, so that the gleanings, meant to be a monthly affair, now appear at irregular intervals. Therefore, I’ll ignore the proverbial back burner and begin with the digression.

Good and god

As I wrote, until the beginning of the nineteenth century, etymologists considered good and god to be related. The question was: “Who are those etymologists?” Before Rasmus Rask and Jakob Grimm—the founders of modern historical linguistics, that is, of the comparative method—etymology was an exercise in intelligent (sometimes, very intelligent) guessing. Also, journals, both scholarly and popular, began to appear, just a trickle first, only around the time when Rask and Grimm brought out their foundational books. The earliest English etymological dictionaries were published in 1617 (John Minsheu), 1671 (Stephen Skinner), and 1743 (Franciscus Junius). All three were written in Latin. Those authors did not insist on the kinship between god and good but mentioned the possibility of their relatedness.

Rasmus Rask, 1787-1832, a linguistic genius and a polyglot (a rare mixture: most modern linguists don’t study languages: they explore LANGUAGE)
(Via Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

The statement from Noah Webster, quoted in the previous post, is correct. I also referred to Walter W. Skeat, who fought the good/god etymology in all the editions of his dictionary. Later, popular journals flooded England and the United States, and still later, numerous philological periodicals appeared. The word god has been discussed multiple times. The incompatibility of the vowels in god and good seems to make further discussion fruitless.

In principle, there is nothing impossible in having positive connotations in the word for “god,” despite the fact that pagan gods were rarely or never looked upon as benevolent. For example, Slavic bog– “god” has the same root as the word for “rich.” Though it sounds like the Iranian word for god, it need not be a borrowing. But it also resembles Engl. bug (as in bugbear). Slavic bog– predates Christianization by many centuries. At that time, the Slavs had no concept of one Supreme Deity. Though as a general rule, the invisible forces above were feared, rather than thanked for their generosity, exceptions are of course possible. As far as I know, Slavic bog– and the numerous b-g words for evil creatures all over Eurasia have almost never been compared. In any case, let me repeat: from the linguistic point of view, god and good have different roots. The English-Greek pair good-agathós should also be left in peace for the reasons given last week. Agathós has experienced a semantic shift comparable to the one observed in Germanic: from “efficient, proper”—a frequent epithet in Homer—to “pleasant, nice.” This conclusion is the result of a detailed study of Classical Greek by generations of specialists, rather than a product of anyone’s scholarly bias (see the comment on the previous post).

Perun, the Slavic thunder god. His name is related to Latin quercus “oak.”
(12th century figurine from Veliky Novgorod by Driewenij Novgorod, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Another reader and my old correspondent pointed out that the Germanic word for “good” has a close counterpart in Hebrew and Aramaic. He, if I am not mistaken, suggests that there is some affinity between Germanic and Semitic here and refers to Ernest Klein’s etymological dictionary. Every time we encounter monosyllabic words beginning with and ending in a voiced stop (b, d, g), we observe similar meanings attached to them across language borders. I am not quite sure what my answer should be. Common heritage? Borrowing? A thought-provoking typological coincidence? My attitude toward Klein’s dictionaries of Hebrew and English is less than enthusiastic. In any case, one should consult the two-volume book by Saul Levin Semitic and Indo-European.

Finally, a correspondent referred to my statement that before Christianization, Europeans had no idea of monotheism. My statement, he pointed out, ignored the religion of the Jews living in Europe in the early Middle Ages. He is right, and I should have modified my formulation accordingly. I would like to thank this reader of the blog for his remark and for the friendly tone of the letter. Usually those who disagree with what I say are irritated by my ignorance and recalcitrancy and, contrary to me, know the ultimate truth.

The origin of the verb to bless

Now, the origin of the verb to bless (Old Engl. blēdsian). This was an important item in the early vocabulary of the converted Anglo-Saxons, and one could expect that it would owe its origin to Latin.  Such is the situation in German (segnen) and Dutch (zegenen), both from Latin signare “to make a sign.” The Old Icelandic verb was borrowed from English. I am now returning to Minsheu, our first English etymologist, who at bless mentioned Latin benedicere “to bless.” The entries in his dictionary are a mixture of putative cognates and synonyms, so that one often wonders how to appraise them. Did he really derive bless from benedicere? Considering the level of etymological knowledge at the beginning of the seventeenth century, today this question might not even have been worth asking if Friedrich Kluge, one of the luminaries of Germanic philology, had not indeed derived Engl. bless from benedicere.

Kluge, I suspect, had no access to Minsheu, but he would hardly have consulted such a source even if he had been aware of its existence. He opened his short note (1923) with the following statement: “No etymologist has probably made bold to equate Engl. bless with benedicere.” It is easier to find a needle in a haystack than a note on the origin of an English word. Greek and Latin etymological research has been systematized quite well. In the past, the two Classical languages were researched so meticulously that for a long time, linguistics was a synonym of Greek and Latin scholarship. By contrast, Germanic has been seriously studied for three centuries at most. There now exists a huge bibliography of English etymology, but not of German or French, or Russian. And even in the English volume, words are listed with reference to thousands of articles, not books. If you have a new hypothesis about the origin of a word outside Greek and Latin, never presume that you are the first to offer it. You may not even be the second.

This is a modern idea of a bugbear. Hardly a divinity, but it takes all sorts.
(Mike Ploog via Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Kluge’s derivation of bless is, most probably, indefensible. He cited a few cases of n becoming l in Germanic and elsewhere, but the difference between benedicere and Old Engl. blēdsian is too great to justify his idea, though we may have to return to it in the future. I don’t think that Kluge’s reconstruction has found any support. Apart from the benedicere—bless comparison, for many years, English lexicographers attempted to trace bless to blithe and bliss. Blithe “joyous, carefree, happy-go-lucky” is today rather rare, but blithely does occur, more often in an ironic context, as in “blithely unaware of the danger” and the like. However, the root vowel of blithe was long i (ī), like the vowel in Modern Engl. be, fee, see, while bless has always had e. Short e and long i did not alternate in the same root. We have here the same type of obstacle that drove a wedge between god and good.

What then is the origin of bless?

To be continued.

Feature image by Raimond Klavins on Unsplash

Recent Comments

  1. Gavin Wraith

    At what date did ‘duenedicere’ become ‘benedicere’ in Latin? Just another nail in the coffin.

  2. Constantinos Ragazas

    Anatoly, you write…

    “Agathós has experienced a semantic shift comparable to the one observed in Germanic: from “efficient, proper”—a frequent epithet in Homer—to “pleasant, nice.”

    Several thoughts come to mind. First, is the meaning in Homer of “agathos” as “efficient, proper” explicitly found in Homer and Greek texts? Or “derived in context” by European scholars millennia later! That would make a big difference in the meaning attributed to this Greek word by non-Greek scholars.

    As a native Greek speaker, “agathos” as “efficient” does not make sense! The sense of “agathos” as “pure, innocent, good” reverberates vividly. And in this sense, “agathos” as the root over time for “god” and “good” is more likely than anything else proposed. It makes sense!

    Further, “god” and “good” came much much later. And at a time when “agathos” did mean “good, pure, innocent”, even if its meaning may have been different in Homer (which I don’t believe it was).

    As for the vowel in “god” vs “good” being too different, thus ruling out any etymological connection…really? A double “o” is categorically different from a single “o”?

    Certainly not as written they are not. But their sound may have changed over time. From a “prolonged o” in “good” and “short emphatic o” in “god” to “u” and “a”. Reflecting the “emotive content” of these two similar sounding and semantically similar words

  3. Constantinos Ragazas

    [Addentum to my comment]

    To put it simply, the Greek word “agathos” as “pure, innocent, good” describes that quality in Christian thinking fpund in Jesus Christ.

    From that we easily get “God” and “good”! The root “-gath-” and the meaning “pure, innocent, good” makes it so!

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