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Etymology of "heath" and "heathen"

Three unwilling partners: “heath,” “heathen,” and “heather”

Did heathens live in a heath, surrounded by heather? You will find thoughts on this burning question of our time at the end of today’s blog post. Apparently, the word heathen in our oldest texts stood in opposition to Christian, and since the new faith came to the “barbarians” from Rome, at least some words for “non-Christians” were coined in Latin or Greek. English speakers still know the word Gentiles, a reflex (continuation) of Latin gentilis, which meant “pertaining to a gēns, that is, tribe or stock.” Quite often, the word for “tribe; one’s own ethnic group” also means “language,” because nothing cements a community more strongly than a shared tongue. A good analog of gentilis ~ Gentiles is Russian iazyk (stress on the second syllable). It means “language; tongue” and its other archaic sense is “a people.” When medieval Slavic clerics needed a term for “non- Christian,” they took the native word for “language; tribe” and added a suffix to it. Hence Russian iazych-nik (stress again on the second syllable).

The earliest Germanic clerics resorted to a similar procedure. Consider the German adjective deutsch “German.” The original noun corresponding to it was thiota “people.” Among the tribes speaking Germanic languages, the Goths were the first to be converted to Christianity, and, as mentioned more than once in this blog, the fourth-century Gothic Bible has miraculously come down to us (part of the New Testament). The Gothic counterpart of German thiota was þiuda (þ as th in English thick), recognizable from names like Theodoric. Þiuda also meant “people.”  

Theodoric the great, the ruler of his people.
(Photo by James Steakley, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Bishop Wulfila, the translator of the Gothic Bible, used þiuda for coining the word for “Gentiles.” But once (only once, as far as this word is concerned!), he found himself in trouble. This is the difficult passage (Mark VII: 26; I am quoting from the Revised Version): “The woman was a Greek, a Syrophenitian by nation.” The word in the original, translated into English as “Greek,” is Hellēnís, and Wulfila wrote haiþno. In the days of Jesus, the Greeks were of course “heathen,” but why did Wulfila suddenly use such an exotic word, why did he associate the heathen Greek woman (and only her!) with haiþi “field”? This question would have bothered only specialists in the history of Gothic, if heathen, an obvious cognate of haiþno had not become the main word for “Gentile” elsewhere in Germanic. Wulfila, as we can see, knew the word, but used it a single time.

In those days, Christian clerics all over the world consulted one another about the terminology of the new faith, and Armenia was very much part of the network. The Armenian word for “heathen” by chance resembles its counterpart in Germanic. It has been suggested that the Armenian adjective became known to Wulfila. This is not very probable but possible. However, if haiþno was indeed taken over from Armenian, in Germanic, folk etymology produced a tie between the non-Christians and the wild, unenlightened “others” living in the heath, far from civilized people.

But even so, the main question remains unanswered. Why did Wulfila use the word haiþno only once, to translate the adjective for “Greek’? And if haiþno was such a rare adjective, fit only for rendering an ethnic term (here, “Greek”), how could it spread far and wide and become the main word for “pagan” all over the Germanic-speaking world? At one time, the best historical linguists believed in the Armenian source of haiþno ~ heathen. Alf Torp, whom I mentioned in my recent blog on mattock, was among them. Like many other modern researchers, I think they were mistaken, and the hypothesis seems to have been abandoned for good reason.

If such an important religious term had been taken over from Armenian, it would not have cropped up only once in Wulfila’s translation and become the main word for “non-Christian” in West Germanic and Scandinavian. Wilhelm Braune, one of the brightest stars in the area of Germanic antiquities, wrote that Wulfila had coined the word himself, to translate Hellēnis. Even if he did (a most improbable suggestion), let us repeat: we still don’t know how its twin became the main term for “pagan” in the entire Germanic-speaking world.

A jigsaw as a symbol of an imperfect etymology.
(Photo by Nathalia Segato on Unsplash, public domain)

The plot thickens when we discover that in Gothic, the noun Kreks “a Greek” (for Greek ‘Hellēn), with the plural Krekos, also existed. This is a puzzling word. It is not clear why the first consonant is k, rather than g, and why Wulfila did not use it when he needed it in Mark VII: 26. Those riddles will, most probably, never be solved. We are left with the suggestion that English heathen (as well as its cognates elsewhere in West and North Germanic) indeed goes back to the idea of “savage” non-Christians inhabiting open country. Thus, the Gothic adjective, used only once, remains in limbo.

In a jigsaw puzzle, all pieces should fit together. In our puzzle, Gothic haiþno has been left out, which means that the sought-for etymology has not been solved to everybody’s satisfaction. The only consolation may be that the adjective pagan goes back to Latin pāgus “district, country,” thus, also to some territory. I am quoting from The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology: “The sense ‘heathen’ (Tertullian) of pagānus derived from that of ‘civilian’ (Tacitus), the Christians calling themselves enrolled soldiers of Christ (members of his militant church) and regarding non-Christians as not of the army so enrolled.” The tie with heath is not entirely clear.

Frustrated, perhaps even heart-broken, we want to take solace in the fact that at least heather grows in a heath. Well, in nature, sometimes, but in the English language, not really. The word heather surfaced in the fourteenth century in the form hathir; heather was first recorded about 400 years later. Hathir was initially confined to Scotland with the contiguous parts of the English border, that is, to the regions in which heath was unknown (!). The Old English for “heath” was hæþ, with long æ (this letter has the value of a in English at).

In all the old Indo-European languages, vowels were allowed to alternate according to a rigid scheme, known as ablaut. We can see the traces of that scheme in Modern English ride—rode—ridden, bind—bound, get—got, speakspoke, and so forth. Short a, as in hathir, was not allowed to alternate with long æ! To be sure, one is forced to accept, even if grudgingly, some untraditional cases. The great Swedish historical linguist Adolf Noreen drew up a list of such exceptions, but hathir emerged too late to join that rather suspicious club.

Heather, a casualty of ablaut.
(Photo by Aqwis, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Many clever hypotheses aim at connecting heath and heather. In my opinion, none of them carries conviction. As a general rule, the more intricate and ingenious an etymology is, the greater the chance that it is wrong. Those interested in minor details will find them in my An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology. The root of heather (if we deny the word’s connection with heath) also remains unknown.

What a frustrating journey! The origin of heathen remains partly undiscovered, and heather (the word, not the plant) continues to wither in darkness. Even if so, we need not lose heart. The origin of many words will never be discovered, because we know too little about their history. (As regards pagan, we seem to know too much; hence the confusion.) But we are brave, we will not flinch and will meet again next week for new exploits. Shall we not?

Featured image: Osterheide bei Schneverdingen by Willow, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Recent Comments

  1. P.D. Brown

    The blogger is not a little inaccurate when he states that heathland does not occur in Scotland and the contiguous parts of England; there’s coastal heath eight miles east of where I live in Aberdeenshire. It’s a threatened habitat now due mainly to overgrazing by livestock.

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