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The Scrivener: Along Pagan Ways

…A few years ago, I checked about 60 words related to Christianity and the Church. There were some surprises…

Brian Barratt meanders along lexicographical byways, conveying his delight in the history and meaning of words.

For lots more examples of Brian’s magical ways with words please click on The Scrivener in the menu on this page. And do visit his invigorating Web site The Brain Rummager www.alphalink.com.au/~umbidas/

A few years ago, I checked about 60 words related to Christianity and the Church. There were some surprises. It’s fascinating to realise, for instance, that without old scholars' misinterpretations of Old Testament stories, we wouldn’t have onanism and sodomy! Well, not the words, anyway. What people do in the privacy of their bedrooms isn’t our concern.

We know that rosary relates to a garden of flowers, and bead originally meant prayer. But did you know that blessing originally meant to sprinkle with blood, and that the Three Wise Men (magi) were probably Zoroastrian astrologers?
Here are a few others, to whet your appetite:

§ For over 600 years, banns have been announcements of a forthcoming marriage read out in churches for three weeks prior to a wedding. The word comes from Old English bannan, to proclaim. In feudal times, a ban was also a summoning of vassals to perform military duties. Banal arose in the 18th century, from an Old French word meaning ‘common to all’, relating to the fact that everyone had to undergo military service.

Perhaps there’s a message for young couples contemplating marriage: Avoid military service. Live in sin!

§ Easter is from an ancient pagan word. Eostre was the Germanic goddess of the dawn. She also had a bit to do with fertility. It is related to Old Norse austre, to the east. Easter eggs have their origins in those pagan times, as tokens of fertility and rebirth in the season of Spring.

§ Holy comes from Old English halig, hælig, related to words in other Germanic languages. The original meaning of holy was perfect, excellent, related to whole, which comes from Old English hal. Other related words are hale, halibut (literally 'excellent flatfish'), hallow, heal, health, holiday and hollyhock (literally 'blessed mallow').

So when you try to grow hollyhocks, and they fall over in rain or wind, don’t be annoyed with them — it’s a bit of a strain, being holy all the time.

§ Lord is from Old English from hlaford, the male head of the household, from hlaf-weard, loaf-guardian. Its application to God and to Jesus arose later, in Middle English. Along with lord, we have lady, derived from hlaf-dige, loaf-kneader. And don’t think that she’s the servant. Without the bread she makes, the lord would have nothing to guard, would he, let alone sandwiches for his lunch?

Just goes to show — men have always been dependent on women.

§ Yule is from Old English geola, the name of the pagan festival of the winter solstice, which lasted 12 days. It’s related to Old Norse jol and Swedish jul. Like the Christmas tree, holly and mistletoe, as well as Easter eggs and hot cross buns, it has nothing to do with Christian symbolism.

But don’t let all this spoil your Christmas, next time. Paganism is not compulsory!

Copyright © Brian Barratt


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