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Religious terminology: further benefits of blessing and the devious ways of cursing

Religious terminology: further benefits of blessing and the devious ways of cursing

Last week, we looked at the attempts to derive the English verb bless from Latin benedicere and from English blithe and bliss, and concluded that those approaches should, most probably or even certainly, be abandoned, even though at first sight, the bless ~ blithe idea looks reasonable. To exacerbate the problem, the only other answer to the question about the etymology of bless seemed to be: “Origin unknown.” In all fairness, it should be noted that our first English etymologist John Minsheu (1617) and a few others derived bless from Old English blōtan “to sacrifice.” The connection is attractive. Blōtan has cognates elsewhere in Germanic, and it may be related to Latin flāmen “sacrificial priest.” But modern philologists balked at the incompatibility of the final consonants s and t in the roots. In the seventeenth and even in the eighteenth century, such niceties did not bother anyone. However, for some reason, blithe, rather than blōtan, dominated the scene for many years.

Walter W. Skeat’s etymological dictionary was published in fascicles (installments), like the OED and all the major dictionaries of that time. Skeat accepted the bless ~ blithe idea, but in 1879, when the first fascicle of the dictionary appeared (naturally, the letter B was there), Henry Sweet, one of the founders of the history of English as a reliable branch of scholarship, published a review of that fascicle. In it, he excoriated Skeat for his neglect of phonetic correspondences, traced bless to the root of the word blood, and explainedthe verb as meaning “to redden with blood.” Here, as below, I’ll skip the phonetic basis of this hypothesis. Naturally, a specialist of Sweet’s caliber considered every detail of his reconstruction.

In a state of absolute bliss.
(By Joe Ciciarelli on Unsplash)

 From a semantic point of view, both ideas (bless from blithe and bless from blōtan) make sense, but as already noted, because of the seeming incompatibility of final t and s no one took Minsheu’s idea seriously. Nor can the old roots of blithe and bliss, one with long i (ī), the other with short e, be reduced to the same protoroot (those vowels do not alternate by ablaut). Skeat concluded work on the first edition of his dictionary with a traditional list of corrections and additions. Pugnacious and inflexible as he was, he admitted that the explanation of bless in the main body of the dictionary was “entirely wrong” and referred to Sweet’s publication. Later, Sweet returned to his etymology of the word bless in two short articles.

Four editions of Skeat’s dictionary exist, but the first three are reprints. He used to revise his etymologies in the Concise versions of his great work. Sweet’s etymology was incorporated into the main text only of the last, fourth, edition. The early versions are available online, and I suspect that the people who use them seldom bother to open the supplement. This caveat is also valid for many other important dictionaries: quite often, only the earlier versions appear in digital form, which is better than nothing, but such outdated sources should be consulted with caution.

The contrite Walter W. Skeat.
(Page 838, An etymological dictionary of the English language, via archive.org)

Sweet’s etymology found universal acceptance. However, since 1879, a good deal has been written on the origin of English words. Unfortunately, as I mentioned last week, remarks on this subject in fugitive publications, especially in languages outside the magic circle of English-German-French (and even that circle is sometimes hard to square) disappear without a trace. At present, relatively few people study the etymology of English as their main subject. Hittite and Tocharian are more “prestigious” and attractive. Perhaps somewhere, in an article on Tocharian B, a chance remark on an English cognate may turn up, but who will look for it there? Unlike what happened in the nineteenth century, philological journals do not print word indexes in the supplement to each volume. 

In the twentieth century, attempts to revive the blōtan-bless etymology have been made twice: once in Swedish, the other time in German, but for decades even the most authoritative sources available on the Internet kept copying the solution offered in the early edition of the OED. James A. H. Murray, the OED’s first great editor, of course knew all the relevant literature but preferred to side with Sweet, as Skeat had done before him. The first volume of the OED appeared in 1884. Only now the gigantic work of revising the dictionary is underway (see below).

Hermann Flasdieck, the author of the most detailed critic of Sweet’s etymology, paid special attention to the phonetic difficulty (final t in blōtan versus final s in bless), but let me repeat: discussing such details here will take me too far afield. Flasdieck’s reconstruction looks solid, and it convinced at least two serious language historians in Germany. I am not sure whether there have been any recent publications on the history of bless, but much to my satisfaction, the OED online has taken cognizance of Flasdieck’s contribution. It gives no references, chooses not to take sides in the argument, and cites both derivations as equally plausible. I prefer the blōtan solution.

A pre-Christian Scandinavian temple and a modern view of the medieval Icelandic Fields of Parliament (Thingvellir), with a modern church in the background.
(Top: the temple at Old Uppsala, via Wikimedia Commons. Bottom: Thingvellir National Park, Iceland, by Jason Krieger on Unsplash)

Be that as it may, the history of bless need not be reduced to its relation with blōtan. The problem was clear to Friedrich Kluge (see the previous post), though no one seems to have paid attention to his statement. Whether from blood or blōtan, bless will end up as a word reminiscent of pagan practices. Christian missionaries made great efforts to coin terms that evoked no associations with traditional rites and places of pagan worship. This is how the word church came into existence (words for pagan temples were numerous). God, whatever its etymology, was as obscure to the Germanic speakers as it is today and must have lost all ties with heathen practices by the time of the conversion. But why, in contrast to their neighbors, did the Anglo-Saxons save blōtan from extinction? We also wonder whether a thousand or so years ago, the speakers of Old English connected their verb blēdsian with blōd “blood” or with blōtan? The words sounded so much alike that the proximity could not escape the speakers, let alone the learned clerics who were responsible for creating the vocabulary of Christianity.

Obviously, we will never know the answers to such questions: there is no one to ask. But I cannot refrain from mentioning the fact that curse is another religious term not resembling its counterparts in the languages of the continent. One of the reason may be that English clerics, especially in the north, worked in close contact with their Irish colleagues. Let us not forget that Christianity came to England not only from Rome but from the already converted “barbarians.” There may have been a deliberate effort to use the vocabulary different from that of the “Germans.” In the history of bless, no Celtic influence can be detected, but curse, another important religious term, rather probably, goes back to cursus, the Latin formula of excommunication. It seems to have merged with a borrowing of OldIrish cúrsagad “reprimand” and yielded the modern form, which then is a blend. By the way, cross also reached England from Ireland.

Inscrutable are the ways of religious terminology.

Feature image by Tomasz Filipek on Unsplash

Recent Comments

  1. Constantinos Ragazas


    …”bless” from “blood”?! Come on now! Get real! The semantic connection here is flimsy in the extreem!

    On the other hand, consider the Greek “ευλογια σε” (give blessings). Here we have the root “ble-” in “(ε)υλο-” (note: the “υ” in the diphthong “ευ” has the sound of Greek “β”). While we also have the elusive ending of “ss” in “bless”!!!

    The “σε” at the end of a Greek verb is very common. It also appears in “καταρα σε” (give curse)! And bingo! We also get a credible etymology for the monosyllabic “curse” from the polysyllabic Greek “καταρα σε”.

    You really need to know Greek if you aspire to be an etymologist!

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