Religious terminology continues: Bless your heart, my dear!


From God (or rather, God) for bless. But before turning to the story of the word blessI would like to answer the questions posed in the context of the Good God dilemma (see previous post). It might be better to leave the replies for my next gleanings, but I get relatively few letters and comments, so the gleanings, which were supposed to be monthly, now appear at irregular intervals. Therefore, I’ll ignore the proverbial back burner and digress first.

Good and God

As I wrote, until the beginning of the 19th century, etymologists considered good and God be linked. The question was, “Who are these etymologists?” Before Rasmus Rask and Jacob Grimm— the founders of modern historical linguistics, that is, of the comparative method — etymology was an exercise in clever (sometimes very clever) guessing. In addition, journals, both scholarly and popular, began to appear, just in dribs and drabs, only around the time that Rask and Grimm released their seminal books. The first English etymological dictionaries were published in 1617 (John Minsheu), 1671 (Stephen Skinner), and 1743 (Franciscus Junius). All three were written in Latin. These authors did not insist on the relationship between God and good but mentioned the possibility of their kinship.

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

Noah Webster’s statement, quoted in the previous post, is correct. I also mentioned Walter W. Skeatwho fought the Good God etymology in all editions of his dictionary. Later, popular journals flooded England and the United States, and still later, many philological periodicals appeared. Word God has been discussed several times. The incompatibility of vowels in God and good seems to make any discussion fruitless.

In principle, there is nothing impossible about having positive connotations in the word “god”, despite the fact that pagan gods were rarely or never considered benevolent. For example, the Slavic bog– “god” has the same root as the word “rich”. Although it sounds like the Iranian word for God, it does not have to be a loan. But he also looks like Engl. bug (a sin scarecrow). Slavic bog– predates Christianization by several centuries. At that time, the Slavs had no concept of a supreme deity. Although as a rule the invisible forces above were feared rather than thanked for their generosity, exceptions are of course possible. As far as I know, slav bog– and the many bg words for evil creatures throughout Eurasia have almost never been compared. In any case, allow me to repeat: from the linguistic point of view, God and good have different roots. The Anglo-Greek couple good-agathos should also be left alone for the reasons given last week. Agathos experienced a semantic shift comparable to that observed in Germanic: from “efficient, suitable” – a frequent epithet in Homer – to “pleasant, nice”. This conclusion is the result of detailed study of Classical Greek by generations of scholars, rather than the product of anyone’s scientific bias (see comment on previous post).

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

Another reader and my former correspondent pointed out that the Germanic word for “good” has a close equivalent in Hebrew and Aramaic. He suggests, if I am not mistaken, that there is a certain affinity here between Germanic and Semitic and refers to Ernest Klein’s etymological dictionary. Whenever we come across monosyllabic words beginning with and ending with a voice stop (b, d, g), we observe similar meanings attached to them across linguistic boundaries. I’m not sure what my answer should be. Common heritage? Loan? A typological coincidence that makes you think? My attitude towards Klein Hebrew and English Dictionaries is less enthusiastic. In any case, it is necessary to consult the book in two volumes in Saul Levin Semitic and Indo-European.

Finally, a correspondent referred to my statement that before Christianization Europeans had no idea 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 changed my wording accordingly. I 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 angered by my ignorance and recalcitrance and, unlike me, know the ultimate truth.

The origin of the verb bless

Now the origin of the verb for bless (Old English bledsian). It was an important part of the primitive vocabulary of Anglo-Saxon converts, and one would expect it to owe its origin to Latin. This is the situation in German (Segnen) and Dutch (zegenen), both from Latin sign “make a sign”. The Old Icelandic verb was borrowed from English. I return now to Minsheu, our first English etymologist, who at bless mentioned latin benedicère “bless.” Its dictionary entries are a mixture of putative words related and synonyms, so much so that one often wonders how to appreciate them. Did he really shoot bless from benedicère? Considering the level of etymological knowledge at the beginning of the 17th century, today this question might not even have been worth asking if Frederic Klugeone of the luminaries of Germanic philology, had in fact not derived Engl. bless from benedicère.

Kluge, I suppose, had no access to the Minsheu, but he would hardly have consulted such a source even if he had known of its existence. He opened his short note (1923) with the following statement: “Probably no etymologist has dared to equate Engl. bless with benedicère.” It’s 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 fairly well systematized. In the past, the two classical languages ​​were so meticulously researched that for a long time linguistics was synonymous with Greek and Latin scholarship. Germanic, on the other hand, has been seriously studied for at most three centuries. There is now a huge bibliography of English etymology, but no German, French or Russian. And even in the English volume, the words are listed with reference to thousands of articles, not books. If you have a new hypothesis about the origin of a word outside of Greek and Latin, never assume that you are the first to come up with it. You may not even be second.

It’s a modern idea of ​​a bugbear. Barely a deity, but all kinds are needed.
(Mike Ploog via Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Kluge’s derivation of bless is, most likely, indefensible. He cited some cases of not to become I in Germanic and elsewhere, but the difference between benedicère and Old English bledsian is too big to justify his idea, although we may have to come back to it in the future. I don’t think Kluge’s reconstruction found any support. Separated from benedicere—blessed comparison, for many years English lexicographers attempted to trace bless for joyful and happiness. Joyful “joyful, carefree, carefree” is rather rare today, but cheerfully occurs, most often in an ironic context, as in “blithely unaware of danger” and so on. However, the root vowel of joyful was long I (I), like the vowel in modern English. to be, costs, to seewhile bless always had and. Short and and long I did not alternate in the same root. Here we have the same type of obstacle that has driven a wedge between God and good.

What then is the origin of bless?

To be continued.

Background image by Raimond Klavins on Unsplash


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