Sunday, December 29, 2019

Christmas Etymologies: Mary

 This Christmas, I selected Mary as the theme of my etymologies.  Please note that this is not a Bible study, but an etymology study of the English words used in the story of Mary from the Gospel of Luke.  With the exception of the name, Mary, none of these etymologies touch on the Greek words used in the original text. Because of the nature of this post, I discourage you using it to draw interpretations or applications from Mary’s character or circumstances.  

Mary - As the name of a Jewish woman in Israel, is predictably from Hebrew, Miriam, literally “rebellious”, from the root mârâh, which means “to be bitter, to rebel, to be disobedient, to resist, provoke, change”.  

blessed - This word has been a part of English since the 12th century, meaning “supremely happy” or “consecrated and holy”.  From bless, Old English bletsian, “to consecrate by sprinkling blood”.  It shares the same root as blood. The definition having to do with happiness is newer, and was probably influenced by the unrelated bliss.  

blood - A word from the Proto-Germanic *blodham, also meaning “blood”.  Perhaps came from a Proto-Indo-European root for “that which bursts out”, *bhlo-to-, also the proposed root of bloom and blow.  

bliss - Since Old English days, this word has has meant “bliss, merriment, happiness, grace, favor", from Proto-Germanic *blithiz, “gentle, kind”.  It was probably influenced to have a more spiritual or heavenly idea of happiness because of its similarity to bless.  

favor - First an Old French term: “a favor; approval, praise; applause; partiality”, favor comes from Latin favorem, “good will, inclination, partiality, support", coined by Cicero from favere "to show kindness to", from Proto-Indo-European *ghow-e- "to honor, revere, worship". Etymologists believe the Old Norse word ga, "to heed", comes from the same Proto-Indo-European root.  

maidservant - This compound word shows up in English in the 1520’s.  

maid - “Unmarried, young”, maid often referring to a virgin woman.  It was, in its early decades, used as a sort of shorthand for the Virgin Mary.  The term was also early on applied to young unmarried men, but not anymore. Shortened from maiden, which is in Old English mægden, with essentially the same meaning. The -en is a diminutive - that is, it comes from a word meaning woman, and the suffix tells us it is a little woman, or a younger woman.  But this word for woman, mægeð, also had a connotation of inexperience, or of one yet "growing in power". From a Proto-Indo-European root *maghu, which referred to young people of either sex, and became the root of words in other languages for “unmarried”, “slave”, or in Old English, “son, male descendant, child”.  I think the Old Irish, maug, meaning “slave” is one of the most interesting cognates, given the late evolution in English of maiden into maid, meaning “domestic servant, housekeeper”.  

servant - From the root serve, servant appeared in 12th century English as “to render habitual obedience to”.  From Old French servir "to do duty toward, show devotion to; set table, serve at table; offer, provide with”.  In many cases, the Latin root of this French word was used of slaves, not only people rendering voluntary service. There is debate about the origin of this Latin word, servire.  Is it from Etruscan names? From a sense of "binding", as in Latin sero? Or is it from a Proto-Italic word meaning “to heed and observe, to shepherd”?  

woman - One of the most ordinary words in our modern English language, the etymology of this Late Old English word, then spelled wimman, is interesting and contested.  Most etymologists think that the earlier form was wifman, an obviously compound word attested in literature.  Man, at that period,  meant “a human”. Wif meant “woman”, revealing that the Late Old English (and our word, too), is a silly compound literally meaning “woman-man”.  Other etymologists speculate that rather than wifman, woman derived from womb-man.  Other languages have such terms, but none of the sources I read were able to cite examples of this progression in English.  Some etymologists believe wif comes from the same root as weave, and refers to a woman's role in medieval English homes as a weaver of clothes. Others suggest a root meaning "to tremble".  Digging further back, other etymologists suggest wif comes from Proto-Germanic *wiban, also meaning “woman”.  (It took a while for wif to specifically refer to a married woman.)  We deduce from the fact that speakers made the word wifman that wif alone at that time didn’t do enough standing alone to communicate “woman”.  But we’re not sure why. Nor do etymologists have consensus whence the Proto-Germanic word comes.  

womb - The Old English ancestor of this word referred to “the womb, belly, or even the heart”?!  From Proto-Germanic *wambo, the source mostly of other Germanic languages’ “womb” words, but also in Old English the root of a word for “child”, umbor.  Most likely comes from a root meaning "bulge" or "swelling". 

magnify - Our English word hasn’t changed much from Latin’s magnificare "esteem greatly, extol, make much of”.  Ultimately, it comes from a combination of two Proto-Indo-European roots, *meg- "great" and *dhe- "to set, put". The predecessor to magnificare in Latin meant “someone who does great deeds”.  Unlike many other words having to do with praise, magnifying almost cannot invent virtue; it must be earned - just like a magnifying glass cannot make a small thing to exist, but only draw attention to it.  

An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language by Walter William Skeat
With reference to a few other old etymological dictionaries. 

To God be all glory.

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