Thursday, April 13, 2006

Carnival of the Etymologies

[A regular Thursday feature of "Done With Mirrors"]

Hot topics in the news this week include the "Judas Gospel," which I quarantine in scare quotes because it's neither a gospel nor the work of Judas.

Gospel is condensed from Old English godspel, which is a compound meaning "good news." The first element of the Anglo-Saxon word had a long "o," but pronunciation shifted under mistaken association with God. It really is the adjective good we still use, and which the Anglo-Saxons would more or less recognize, if they could hear us say it. Then as now, it meant "having the right or desirable quality."

The Proto-Germanic root is *gothaz (cf. Old Norse goðr, Dutch goed, German gut, Gothic goþs). The original notion is "fit, adequate, belonging together," and linguists trace it back to the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European base *ghedh- "to unite, be associated, suitable." This relates our good to Russian godnyi "fit, suitable," as well as the Old English verb gædrian "to gather, to take up together," the root of gather.

It is not, however, related to God. God is good may be a theological truth, but it is not a linguistic one.

The back nine of gospel is Old English spel "story, message." This word has faded from English in this sense, but it survives as the verb spell "name the letters of." The original verb was Old English spellian, which meant "to tell, speak." The meaning "write or say the letters of a word" emerged c.1400, from the notion of "to read letter by letter, read with difficulty" (c.1300).

Spell also developed a dark side, which emerged in the modern noun meaning "set of words with magical powers, incantation, charm." This evolved in the 16th century out of an earlier more innocuous meaning "story, speech." As "Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore" notes, "The term 'spell' is generally used for magical procedures which cause harm, or force people to do something against their will -- unlike charms for healing, protection, etc."

The verb spell that means "indefinite period of time" is of uncertain origin and relationship to the other word. It goes back to Old English spelian "to take the place of," and perhaps is related to spilian "to play" (related to German spiel).

The whole of gospel is a translation into Anglo-Saxon of Latin bona adnuntiatio, which is itself a translation of Greek euangelion. When the first missionaries reached the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms from Rome or Ireland, in the 7th century, they had to find equivalent words in the native language for the complex concepts of Christian theology. In some cases, a native word readily presented itself: sin, for instance. Or gecyrren for convertere.

In other cases, a native word could be pressed into use with a slight twist of meaning: For "savior" the early Christian writers in England used the Anglo-Saxon noun hælend, which literally means "healer." The Latin word for "prophet" is glossed in Old English by witga, which is related to wit (though not then in the Oscar Wilde sense).

In still other cases, however, there was no word in the English tongue for the idea in question. Often the boastful Anglo-Saxon warrior culture lacked even the concept in question. To get things started, the Christians simply formed a new word. In the Mercian hymns, Latin humilitatem is glossed by Old English eaðmodnisse, which you could render today as "smooth-moodness." Not an exact rendering of the idea in "humility," but close enough to it to get the conversation started.

Sometimes the Latin-speaking Christians formed new compound words from native components that corresponded to the elements in the liturgical Latin word. One of them was the word for the "parables" in the New Testament. This first appeared in Old English as bispell which would mean "a saying beside," from the same root that survives in gospel. The German equivalent, Beispiel, still is in use and means "example."

Latin conscientia sometimes was nativized in Old English as inwit. Old English lacked pity, so the evangelists came up with mildheortness, literally "mild-heartness," as an exact loan-translation of Latin misericordia (pity arrived later, in Middle English, from France, and sent mildheortness packing).

In the Anglo-Saxon translation of the tale of the Good Samaritan, when the Samaritan finds the robbed man lying in the ditch, he is mid mildheortnesse ofer hine astyred: "stirred with mild-heartness for him." He then props the wounded man up on his donkey and takes him for medical assistance -- to a læcehuse ("leech-house"). You have to feel for that fellow in the ditch. This just wasn't his day.

Greek euangelion (the ancestor of our evangelist) is itself a compound of eu- "good" and angellein "announce" (angelos, source of angel, means "messenger").

The "Gospel of Judas" is what is known as a Gnostic work; the adjective Gnostic was applied to various early Christian sects that claimed direct personal knowledge beyond the Gospel or the Church hierarchy. The word comes from the Greek adjective gnostikos "knowing, able to discern," which ultimately springs from the fecund Proto-Indo-European root *gno- "to know."

Other descendants of this ancient word include English know (Old English cnawan), and, via Latin or Greek, gnomic, cognomen, diagnosis, ignorant, ignore, physiognomy, and prognosis.