Sunday, 13 August 2017

Pagan Anglo-Saxons, Phonology, and Christian lexis 6

V.  Christian native formations

The story so far. I have suggested that eight Christian Latin loanwords in Old English are unlikely, for cultural reasons, to have been borrowed on the Continent before the Settlement, or, for phonological reasons, to have entered Primitive old English later than about 525–550; that they must have therefore originated from a Latin-speaking Christian community in southern Britain at the time of the Settlement; and that they are more likely to have entered Old English as part of a language shift from Latin to Old English by that community than as items borrowed by the settlers. I have also added a list of other Latin loanwords, some with possible Christian associations, which lack West Germanic cognates and for that reason may similarly not have been Continental borrowings by the West Germanic ancestor of Old English, and which again on phonological grounds probably predate 550. These also point to a Latin-speaking community in southern Britain in this period.

I now turn to Christian words in Old English that might have been expected to be borrowed from Latin but instead are formed from native elements.

Word study 1: fullwian, fullwiht, halig, and weofod ~ wigbed.

These words contain the root *wiːx- which meant ‘holy’ (compare German Weihnachten). Remarkably, as a stand-alone adjective, *weoh ‘holy’ has totally disappeared, except in the compounds weohsteall ‘sanctuary’ (attested x 2) and in partly disguised form in weofod, wi(g)bed ‘altar’. Equally remarkably, the parallel noun weoh appears in the sense ‘idol’ with a by-form (with Anglian smoothing, in compounds before a consonant)  wig-, homographic with wig ‘war’, occurring also in compounds wiggield ‘idol’, wigsmiþ, and wigweorþung ‘idolatry’.

The disappearance of weoh must have occurred a long time before the literary period, given that halig has so comprehensively replaced it. Yet clearly there was a time when it was a normal word for ‘holy’, ‘sacred’, ‘consecrated’, since it was employed in the compounds weofod and weohsteall.

The variant wi(g)bed shows Anglian smoothing of /i:o/ (Campbell §229) with loss of /x/ standing before a consonant (Campbell §230); the <g> is to be taken as purely graphic, since voicing of /x/ to /ɣ/ written <g> would be unparalleled. When the /x/ disappeared, the resulting intervocalic /b/ did not become /v/ as it did in weofod. This suggests that while both words show breaking of original /i:/, weofod arose at a period when medial /b/ was not phonotactically permissible, since (presumably subsequent to the reduction of stress on the second element) /b/ has been replaced by /v/. If in fact the second element is beod, the word shows early OE shortening of long vowels in the second elements of compounds of obscure meaning (Campbell §356), as in lareow, eored,  fultum, and indeed fulwiht. Both these changes to the second element suggest that the compound dates from an early period of Old English.

There is no reason to think weofod is older than primitive Old English. It has no Germanic cognates. If it were that old, it would have to be a pagan religious term. But it is not clear that Germanic paganism featured altars that were an exact polytheistic equivalent of the ecclesiastical altar. If they did, they might have their own root-formed word for it, rather than a compound. Notwithstanding all this, if weofod were a term for a pagan altar it seems highly unlikely that the Augustinian missionaries would have encouraged their converts to carry it over into Christianity. The Latin synonym altar(e) was, after all, available, and was also borrowed (later) into Old English. But anyway, the most likely derivation of the word, from weoh + beod, points strongly towards a Christian coinage: ‘holy table’, mensa sancta or tabula sancta, is a well-established Latin term for the Christian altar. (Derivation from bedd seems unlikely, given the double –dd- of the latter, and the meaninglessness of such a compound.) But if the compound is a Christian coinage, it is an early one, predating the ousting of weoh by halig.

The originally compound verb fullwian shows remarkable wearing down of its second element, almost unparalleled in OE except perhaps in possibly Germanic compounds with stressed prefixes such as beot, fracoþ, and especially, frætwe and geatwe. Like them, and fultum, it is a long-established and now disguised compound, not a live and transparent one. Yet it cannot be as old as these, since it is a compound that could really only have been invented by Christians; it cannot be West Germanic, and in any case it has no Germanic cognates.

The original formation may have been something like *full-wiːxian, probably a Class I verb. There may, of course, have been a pre-existing verb *wiːxian ‘to consecrate’. If so the compound could have been made at a later stage. It is very difficult to hypothesize how *wiːxian would have developed as there are no directly parallel surviving verbs. However, in the compound with full- it ended up as a form that was readily assimilated to weak Class II, i.e. ending in –ian. This assimilation could only have happened after the I-umlaut of the Class II suffix –oːjan > -eːjan and subsequent shortening to –ijan. But it must have happened in the compounded form, where low stress on the second syllable led to the reduction and obscuring of this element so that it could be interpreted as little more than the stem of a unitary verb. In WS the development would have been something like *wiːoxian > *wiːexan > *wiːan > *weːon and in nWS  *wiːoxian > *wiːxan > *wiːan. The compounding could have happened as late as the stage *wiːan, i.e. after the effacement of /x/ and contraction. As regards the base verb: it has disappeared completely from literary OE and has been replaced by halgian, in the same way, and presumably for the same reasons and at the same time, as weoh was replaced by halig.

It is an unusual compound as regards its meaning, which must literally be ‘to consecrate fully’. This suggests a view of baptism as the culmination of a process. And of course, so it is, for adults: the process begins with the candidates presenting themselves and, in some traditions, undergoing exorcism, and then undergoing a long course of catechesis. This could apply to any community where adult baptism was prominent because conversion was under way. But perhaps the key thing about the compound is that it reflects a participant’s eye view of the process, not a strictly theological or missiological one. It looks like a folk formation, not a term introduced by missionaries, who would surely have preferred baptizo (which of course was only borrowed, or only survives, in OE in the agent-noun bætsere).

So should weofod and fullwian be regarded as post-Augustinian compounds? Unless we are to adopt a very late dating for the phonology involved, it would seem not. And on semantic grounds, the argument for an earlier coinage is strong. weofod must have been formed when the adjective weoh was a common word and the noun weoh ‘idol’ either did not exist, did not have the same prominence, or was not used in the same dialect, since it is unlikely that  Christians would form a compound meaning ‘altar’ from a word which also had a prominent sense ‘idol’. This suggests two periods separated in time, but both Christian: an earlier one when weoh was a positive word meaning ‘holy’ and weofod and fullwian were coined, and a much later one when weoh had come to be applied to idols, but weofod was too well entrenched to be ousted and anyway was perhaps not imaginatively associated with weoh. On the one hand, if the coinage occurred in the post-Augustinian period, it needs to be explained why weoh, which would still have to have been a positive word, came to be applied to idols; but on the other hand, if the coinage occurred while paganism was still thriving in communities immediately adjacent to the Christian community, and weoh was a word actively used by pagans in their rituals, it is not difficult to see why Christians might have abandoned it, while retaining its disguised compounds.

Word study 2: Hælend and halig

Instead of ‘Jesus’, the word Hælend (Helend 34 times in the Rushworth Gospels) is used 4,320 times in the surviving OE literature. Forms of I(h)esu(s) occur about 1,230 times, but virtually all of them in Latin text. Hælend is used as a quasi-proper name, alongside se Hælend. (It should be added here that, despite the use of Heliand in the title of the Old Saxon poem, the word is not regularly used in the poem even as Christ’s title, let alone his personal name.)

Is the practice of comprehensively substituting a word that literally means ‘Healer’ for the proper name ‘Jesus’ attested in any other medieval literature? And why was it done?

Does it seem likely that the Augustinian missionaries would have introduced this practice? Could it rather have been some kind of development in folk religion?

It is odd for more than one reason. Firstly, although, of course, Jesus was a healer in his earthly life, this is not the obvious aspect of Christ to emphasize in a name purporting to be his major title. Of course, ‘salvation’ can be regarded as metaphorically ‘healing’—or ‘healing’ can be regarded as an important aspect of ‘salvation’—but theologically they are simply not equivalent, and ‘healing’ would not be regarded as the central or critical feature of ‘salvation’. Normal synonyms for Christ’s central mission include: ‘redemption’ (‘buying back, ransoming’); ‘forgiveness’, ‘pardon’, or ‘acquittal’; ‘sacrifice’ or ‘self-offering’. Or an alternative metaphor takes Christ as ‘Lord’, ‘Ruler’, ‘King’, etc.

The second reason is that there doesn’t seem to be a well-known strand of theological tradition interpreting the name Iesus as ‘healer’, which might have motivated educated missionaries to adopt the term. There does seem to be some evidence for the reading of Greek iaomai ‘I heal’ into Iesus, but this is an abstruse strand of exegesis, unlikely to be reflected in popular terminology.


Much has been made of Wulfilas’s ‘avoidance’ of Gothic *hailags (known to have existed from the neuter hailag on the Pietroassa insciption). But perhaps he ‘avoided’ it, not because it implied some kind of pagan ‘sanctity’ or god-worship, but because, at that time, it didn’t have the sense of ‘holy’ at all? Not enough attention has been given to the peculiarity of its formation. The base *hail- has to do with physical and mental well-being (a meaning that could have been reflected in the Pietroassa use of hailag). It has nothing inherently to do with the gods, or God, or being ‘set apart’, or consecrated, or morally pure, which are essential senses of ‘holy’, sanctus, etc. It would be going too far to claim that the suffixation of hal occurred first in Old English and that missionaries spread the word to continental Europe: the very wide and early existence of derivatives of Primitive Germanic *hailag- is against this idea. But it is arguable that, originally, *hailag- had an entirely different, ‘secular’ sense in Primitive Germanic (and Gothic): perhaps ‘characterized by well-being’, ‘lucky’, ‘auspicious’.

I would suggest that there must have been an early stage in christianization in England at which the word for ‘holy’ remained weoh, which was able to combine into the compounds weofod and fullwian, as discussed above. There must then have been a stage at which that word was disfavoured and replaced by halig, even though the latter’s original meaning wasn’t especially close. And, subsequently, this use of the word was spread to the other Germanic dialects.

Is it significant that the *hail- root occurs in two Christian Old English derivatives in senses that are considerably extended from the basic meaning ‘(having) mental or physical well-being’?

Word study 3: ‘Easter’ and ‘housel’

These are two Christian words with pagan connections.  The OED (revised) states, regarding ‘Easter’: ‘It is noteworthy that among the Germanic languages the word (as the name for Easter) is restricted to English and German; in other Germanic languages, as indeed in most European languages, the usual word for Easter is derived from the corresponding word for the Jewish Passover’. This is very significant. Given the role of Anglo-Saxon missionaries in the christianization of Germany, I would suggest that the German use may well be based on the Old English use, pretty much as a calque. (It also occurs in Middle Low German (ôsterdach), alongside pâsche.) But whether it is or not, it is very singular indeed that the important Latin term pascha was not adopted into Old English.

As the OED goes on to say, Bede derives the word (Eostru, Eastran, etc.) from ‘the name of a goddess whose festival was celebrated by the pagan Anglo-Saxons around the time of the vernal equinox’, and ‘This explanation is not confirmed by any other source, and the goddess has been suspected by some scholars to be an invention of Bede’s. However, it seems unlikely that Bede would have invented a fictitious pagan festival in order to account for a Christian one.’ 

If the Christian festival was named by Anglo-Saxon Christians after a non-Christian (let us call it, rather than pagan) festival, some explanation is called for. Missionaries with theological and ecclesiastical considerations in the forefront of their minds would surely be insistent that pascha (or phase as it appears in some texts of the period) ought to be adopted, in view of the essential symbolism of the Hebrew passover as prefiguring the death and resurrection of Christ as well as the sacrifice of the Mass. To repeat, the central and sacred nature of this festival is such that the use of an—at least secular—but possibly pagan name, derived from that of a goddess, is really extraordinary. I would suggest that this is something much more likely to occur in a context of popular religious practice than one where professional theologians and evangelists were in control. It may be of significance too that the word shows much dialectal variation. One could envisage, say, pagans who celebrated Eostru’s festival in spring, if they lived in close proximity to a Christian community, applying its name to the extremely prominent Christian festival occurring at the same time, and carrying the name over after their conversion—or even some kind of syncretistic combination of festivals. But this is not something the post-Augustinian church is likely to have promoted, whereas if it were already established in Christian Old English before their arrival they would probably have acquiesced in it, or maybe not even thought to enquire into its origins at all.

‘Housel’ seems to be another word originating in pagan practice. It has cognates in Scandinavian and Gothic. OED (revised) says: ‘The idea that the Scandinavian word in Christian uses shows a borrowing or reborrowing from English is now normally rejected, largely on the grounds of the existence of forms with a nasal.’ But these forms do not seem to rule out an OE origin for the Christian use: they would simply require it to be a calque rather than a loanword. So it’s not impossible that Scandinavian Christian use is derived, as with other Christian words, from Old English. In the case of Gothic, it’s hard to see the likelihood of any direct influence. Gothic hunsl-  is rare; once it’s used for ‘service to God’ (John 16:2), once in a compound meaning ‘altar’ (Matthew 5:23), once, in its verbal derivative, rendering Greek ‘pour out as a drink offering’ (2 Timothy 4:6), and once as a calque adjective.  The underlying sense seems to be ‘religious offering’. The adoption of husl to mean specifically ‘the consecrated elements’, ‘the Eucharist’ has to be an innovation on the part of Old English, and once again is somewhat unexpected and striking, suggesting folk rather than missionary coinage.

Word study 4: ‘rood’ and ‘bless’ and ‘curse’

The cross is of course a central concept in Christianity, and one would expect Latin crux, crucem to be introduced by missionaries, which indeed seems to have occurred in every other Germanic language group. The only other Germanic languages that share this sense of the word with English are Old Saxon, which also has ruoda ‘the cross on which Jesus suffered’ and Old Icelandic, where ði is acknowledged as a loan from English. Since it is inconceivable that the Christian sense could have arisen in the parent language before Old English and Old Saxon parted company, it would be attractive to believe that the Old Saxon use is also a loan from Old English: certainly it does not seem to have survived into Middle Low German. Old Saxon, and virtually all the other Germanic languages, possess the full range of senses ‘rod or staff’, ‘rod for measuring’, ‘measure’, whereas in Old English, only the last survived into later English; the sense ‘staff or spar’ evidently existed but happens to be scarcely attested.

The root word is completely neutral, lacking any connotations of either execution or religion. Its adoption suggests an uninstructed person’s perception of an image or carving of a cross simply as two spars of wood, a use that could well have been coined by non-Christians with no insight into the religious significance of the image. It comes instead of the expected adoption of the theologically specific foreign term based on the name of the instrument of execution. So, again it looks like an untechnical folk adaptation of a native word. Of course Late Latin /kru:t∫e/ was borrowed into Old English as cruc, but the form shows it to be a late loan and possibly originally a learned one; it is also quite rare until Middle English.


This remarkable word is, as the OED says, not found elsewhere in Germanic. The preferred derivation is /bloːdisoːjan/ < /bloːd/ ‘blood’ with the /–is-oːjan/ suffix that is found in numerous denominal verbs. Pace the OED, the occurrence of –ds- spellings is not crucial for the blod etymology (it is a possible spelling for /ts/ where there is no underlying /d/), and so derivation from blot ‘sacrifice’ is also theoretically possible.

The OED says: ‘The etymological meaning was thus “to mark (or affect in some way with blood (or sacrifice)”. But the sense-development of the word was greatly influenced by its having been chosen at the English conversion to render Latin benedicere’. This is a slightly misleading statement, since it seems to imply a known original meaning, whereas the ‘etymological meaning’ is entirely inferred from the presumed etymology, for which there is no direct evidence, and based on no actual usage. In the records the word is exclusively used as an equivalent of Latin benedicere.

The semantic contrast between the presumed primitive OE word and the Latin word is the reverse of that seen between ‘rood’ and crux. Here, the ecclesiastical Latin word and its Greek counterpart are essentially saying-words, performative in nature. Blessing is something spoken and abstract which has an effectual outworking which may be abstract or concrete. In Latin, and in Greek, there is not the slightest hint of physical actions such as the making of sacrifice or any offering or the shedding of blood, even though these things have an important part in Christian theology. In religion, sacrificial bloodshed is one thing, and conferring blessing is quite different and only incidentally related. So if one or other of the word’s two possible etymologies (‘to do something with blood’ or ‘to make a sacrifice’) is correct, how did the remarkable shift of meaning occur?

It is very difficult to believe that theologically educated missionaries would have adopted (or coined) a verb from a root meaning ‘blood’ or ‘(pagan) sacrifice’ as the everyday word for ‘bless’. Partly for the reasons given—that there is no direct connection between the sacrificial aspects of Christianity and the simple act of blessing—and partly because (if the verb had been used in pagan contexts) it would be seen as having undesirable connotations. It is perhaps possible that it could be another ‘folk’ coinage: an adoption of a pre-Christian, but perhaps already secularized, term, though it remains hard to envisage the semantic shift involved. The modern etymologist’s cheerful coupling of sacrifice and benediction is a piece of patching (perhaps based on superficial acquaintance with religious life) which doesn’t stand up to serious examination.

In any case, the presumed etymology requires the word to have been coined well before the period of I-mutation and subsequent syncope, which rules out an Augustinian origin. So whatever its origins, it arguably belongs to the period between the Settlement and the mid-6th century to which our other evidence points.

Ideally, one would look elsewhere for an etymology. I can conceive of two, both requiring some straining of phonology!

(1) As a derivative of one of the two OE words bled: either (i) WS blæd, in the sense ‘prosperity, riches, plenty’. The phonological objections are twofold: (a) that blæd contains æ1 which, if shortened, ought to give æ in WS at least (note, however, that there are several examples of the form blætsian); and (b) that the bloedsian spelling implies I-umlaut of o: but perhaps this only points to later association with blod (or bledan), rather than derivation from it. Some weak semantic support for this may be seen in compounds like blædgiefa ‘giver of prosperity’, blædgefæstnes ‘sustenance’. Or (ii) the root of the verb might be seen as an unrecorded extended sense of bled ‘blossom, fruit’, which does contain the required I-umlaut of o, being related to blowan ‘to blossom’.

(2) An alternative is that bledsian actually is a primitive Old English borrowing of Latin benedicere, with some kind of irregular phonological or morphological development in the late Latin dialect (and possibly also in primitive Old English). Perhaps we should envisage, earliest, a change of bene- to *bele-  after maledicere; subsequently suffix substitution in the Latin dialect, perhaps *beledicere > *beledizare or *beledissare (with the suffix -issare, the by-form of –izare from Greek -izein; compare post-classical Latin baptissare < baptizare); then the adaptation of  *beˌlediˈssare into primitive Old English as *bledisoːjan. In partial support of the latter we might adduce OE bædsere < Latin baptissare; as a parallel to the loss of the low-stressed vowel of the first syllable we could adduce pluccian < the posited late Latin etymon *piluccare (though this is likely to have been a West Germanic loanword).

If Latin benedicere was not borrowed into Old English, one might have expected that the main Old English word for ‘bless’ would have been segnan, literally ‘to make the sign of the cross’, the word found in other West Germanic languages (German segnen, Dutch zegenen, Middle Low German segenen, etc.), and which indeed is used in OE as a synonym of, and sometimes paired with, bledsian. At what point did the loan of Latin signare take place? As with several of our other words, it is hard to imagine that it passed into the usage of pagan West Germanic communities; it is another word that is only likely to be of use to a Christian community; therefore not a common West Germanic word. The form in the Germanic languages shows that it was borrowed after lowering of Latin /i/ to /e/, but this is quite early (third century), so not diagnostic for date. Latin <gn> was /ŋn/, later /ɲ/, the reflex of which in primitive Old English is hard to guess. I suspect that this is quite a late loan from ecclesiastical Latin.


Late OE cursian. There are of course several theories about the etymology of this word. One involves Latin curs-, from currere. It may be significant that the terminal part of the root, the s followed by the Class I endings, is parallel to that of bledsian.

Word study 5: neorxnawang

Whatever the etymology of this extraordinary word, two things stand out.

1. It’s formed of native elements but used for the thoroughly Christian concept of Paradise (as well as occasionally for the Elysian Fields, an item that can only have been transmitted within Christian culture). As has been frequently observed, the adoption or adaptation of such a term is more likely to have happened by way of a popular, uneducated community than at the instigation of learned foreign missionaries.

2. The formation is so old that we are not sure what the initial element is. Given the miniscule size of the surviving of Old English corpus, it’s possible that that element did survive and was understood into the literary period; but it’s equally possible that it had already been long forgotten and therefore dates back to a very early period of Christianization. Of course, it could be a very old pagan term pressed into Christian service, in which case it is remarkable for the reasons outlined under 1 above. It’s possible that the first part of the first element is neo- or nea- ‘corpse’. If so, the literal meaning of the compound would need to have passed beyond active memory before it could be adopted as the equivalent of paradisum.

The second element wang could be taken to reflect a Christian conception of Paradise more closely than something we can only conjecture to have been part of pagan beliefs.

Word study 6: ‘gospel’.

OED (unrevised) says:
‘Old English godspel, doubtless originally gód spel (see good adj. and spell n.1), good tidings (compare láð spel evil tidings), a rendering of the Latin bona adnuntiatio (Corpus Gloss. Int. 117) or bonus nuntius (‘Euuangelium, id est, bonum nuntium, godspel’, Voc. c1050 in Wright-Wülcker 314/8), which was current as an explanation of the etymological sense of Latin evangelium, Greek euaggelion (see evangely n.). Compare Gothic þiuþspillôn ‘to preach the gospel’ (euaggelizesthai), < þiuþ-s good + spillôn to announce (cognate with spell n.1). When the phrase gód spel was adopted as the regular translation of evangelium, the ambiguity of its written form led to its being interpreted as a compound, god-spel, < god n. and int. + spel in the sense ‘discourse’ or ‘story’. The mistake was very natural, as the resulting sense was much more obviously appropriate than that of ‘good tidings’ for a word which was chiefly known as the name of a sacred book or of a portion of the liturgy. From Old English the word passed, in adapted forms, into the languages of the Germanic peoples evangelized from England: Old Saxon godspell, Old High German gotspell, Old Norse guð-, goðspiall; in each case the form of the first element shows unequivocally that it was identified with God, not with good. The Old Norse form has survived into modern Icelandic; the continental Germanic languages early discarded the word for adoptions of Latin evangelium.
Although the ó in Old English gódspel would necessarily in time have been shortened by the regular operation of phonetic law, it does not appear that this process could have taken place early enough to account for the form of the word in Old Saxon and Old High German. The form godspel must therefore (as above explained) be due to a misinterpretation of the written form, originating before the word had any oral currency.’

Observations: (1) It is instructive to note that native missionaries carried the Old English word to the Continent, but that there the Latin word superseded the Germanic one quite early. In this we see the strong bias of Continental Catholicism towards the use of the Latin (or Latinized) terminology of religion, which did not prevail in England. (2) The shortening of the vowel in the first syllable surely had to have occurred before this missionary work; we have to imagine that the spoken form was far more important in the process of adoption than the written. Campbell §285 brackets the shortening in godspell with that in the hypothetical *bræmblas (underlying recorded bræmbel), and also enetere and samcucu, where shortening must be relatively early. (3) In any case, the emergence of the compound precedes OE written records; arguably, it is a very early coinage, similar to the other native Christian terms already discussed. We do not find, e.g., ‘*on þam godan spelle’, ‘*þæs godan spelles’ but ‘on þam godspelle’, ‘þæs godspelles’.

But I suggest that also relevant here is Old Irish soiscél ‘gospel’. It’s probably coincidental that it is a near rhyme. More important is that it’s also a native calque, the second element of which, scél, means ‘story’, ‘news’, or ‘tale’, and is therefore very close to OE spel. The first element is much more like that of the Greek etymon, given that so- is a prefix (and in fact is cognate with Greek eu-, though that could hardly have been known at the time). This is not (necessarily) to argue for Christian Irish influence, for the period at which I am envisaging coinage of godspel is not sufficiently later than the evangelization of Ireland. Rather, I would suggest (though it is not essential to the hypothesis) a form of insular Latin-speaking Christianity that favoured the use transparent terms like bonus nuntius (as against evangelium) and fostered the adoption of native calques in the communities which it influenced.

Note: Bryttonic has Welsh efengyl, Old Cornish aweil, Breton aviel, all from Latin evangelium.

Word study 7 ‘lent(en)’

OED (unrevised) says:
‘Old English lencten strong masculine corresponds to Middle Dutch lentin , Old High German lengizin (mânôth), shortened lenzin : apparently a derivative or a compound of the shorter synonym which appears as Middle Low German, Middle Dutch, Dutch lente (feminine), Old High German langiz, langaz strong masculine (Middle High German langez , modern German dialects langis, etc.), also Old High German lenzo weak masculine (Middle High German lenze , modern German lenz). The shorter form (? Old Germanic type *laŋgito- , *laŋgiton- ) seems to be a derivative of *laŋgo- long adj.1, and may possibly have reference to the lengthening of the days as characterizing the season of spring. It is doubtful whether the ending of the longer form is a mere derivational suffix, or whether it represents an Old Germanic *tino- day, cognate with *-tîno- in Gothic sinteins daily, and with Sanskrit dina, Old Church Slavonic dini, Lithuanian diena day. 
The ecclesiastical sense of the word is peculiar to English; in the other Germanic languages the only sense is ‘spring’. As an ordinary noun lenten has been superseded by the shortened form Lent n.1; but the longer form has survived in attributive use, and is now apprehended as an adjective, as if < lent + -en suffix4.’

We have here a common West Germanic word meaning ‘Spring’, arguably from the base of long, with reference to the lengthening days. But Old English alone applied this word to the ecclesiastical season, in preference to the Latin Quadragesima, adopted by the vernacular Romance languages and Welsh (carawys) and Irish, which is not found in Old English. This exemplifies the recurring pattern by which a native Old English word was adopted for an ecclesiastical term in contrast to the universal practice of neighbouring Christian communities.

Summary of this post.

It is remarkable that a dozen or so central Christian terms in Old English are not loanwords from Latin, as most of their equivalents in other Germanic languages are, but are based on native elements. In all cases the words, or their Christian meanings, cannot predate the Settlement, but in several the formation seems to be very old. Moreover in several cases there are cultural reasons (such as association with paganism) that make it unlikely that Continental Catholic missionaries would have promoted the word’s adoption unless it was already well established and the undesirable connotations had faded. Most of the words suggest coinage by the ordinary people rather than by missionaries.


This investigation has identified a number of idiosyncracies regarding the milieu in which Old English Christian terminology arose.

  1. As regards loanwords, they seem to point to a form of late Latin that differs in certain respects from the form which has given rise to the nearest neighbour of prOE and most likely source of its loanwords, northern Gallo-Romance. Words such as ‘church’, ‘bishop’,  and ‘priest’ seem to require idiosyncratic late Latin phonology. In some transmissions there also seems to be an element of folk etymology.
  2. As regards words of native origin, most are surprising in being native words at all, rather than Latin loanwords, as would be a strong expectation on the basis of similar European communities. Some kind of ‘folk’ rather than (Roman) missionary coinage seems indicated.
  3. Surprising semantic extensions underly the Christian use of several terms, which again seem to point to ‘folk’ usage rather than missionary origin.
  4. As regards dating, the phonology of the loanwords in particular, seems to require adoption into primitive Old English before the incidence of I-umlaut, which I am assuming occurred around 525. The evolution of some of the native words also seems to be point to very early coinage in Old English and not in West Germanic.

The hypothesis which I favour as an explanation of these features is that this Old English Christian vocabulary came into existence in Britain, during and after the initial settlement period, well before the Augustinian mission, and in a situation of regular social contact between a Germanic-speaking settler community and a resident Latin-speaking community. Two scenarios are possible:

  1. The settler community adopted the religion of the residents.
  2. The resident community adopted the language of the settlers.

For reasons already given I prefer the second scenario.

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