The Etymology of God

I enjoy linguistics; I consider it a hobby. I speak only 2 languages fluently, and several others to varying degrees. Whereas some people find language learning tedious, I find it invigorating.

One of the areas of linguistics I enjoy most is etymology: the study of the origin of words.

Etymology gives you a window into the thinking of a culture or a people group.

For example: I have been teaching a church history class at White Fields, and last week we were talking about how Constantine, before his conversion to Christianity, had monotheistic leanings and had declared “the venerable day of the Sun” (Sunday) to be a free day, on which no one was to work. Until that time, Sunday had been a work day, and Christians gathered for worship and the taking of the sacrament (communion) before work and then again after work, in the evening. More on that here.

Someone in the class said: Oh, so that’s why it’s called SUNday?  Yes, and in English that’s why it’s called Monday (Moon) and Saturday (Saturn).

In fact, it is interesting to consider the etymology of the names of the week in other languages. In Russian, Sunday is called: Воскресенье, which is a close derivative of the word воскрешение, which means “Resurrection”.

In Hungarian, it’s not quite as cool: Sunday is “Vasárnap” – which no doubt derives from “vásár-nap”: “Market Day”… Definitely not as cool (or as Christian) as “Resurrection”. While Romans were all about honoring the Sun, Hungarians were all about shopping…

But if etymology gives insight into the way a culture thinks, then what can we learn from the etymology of “God”?

The English word God, does not derive from the word “good”, as one might think, but comes from the Germanic Gott, which derives from the Gothic Gheu, which is thought to derive from the Sanskrit: Hu – meaning: “the one who is invoked” or “the one who is sacrificed to.”  It refers to the supreme being.

The Latin Deus, along with the related Greek Theos comes from the Indo-Iranian Deva/Sanskrit Dyaus, which are related to the terms for “to give light”, “to implore”. It is from these roots that the Spanish Dios comes.

In Hungarian, the word for God is Isten.  I’ve been told that this modern form derives from:  Ős-tény – literally: “The ancient truth (or: ancient fact)”

One of the very interesting things to read about is how different missionaries tried to find a given culture’s word for God, sometimes with great success and sometimes without. For example, in Korea, Catholic missionaries believed that the Koreans had no good word for God – as in, the Supreme Being of the universe – so they used the Chinese word for God, a word which was foreign to the Koreans, and which caused the Koreans to think of Christianity as a foreign religion. It was only when Protestant Presbyterian missionaries came to Korea, that they got to know the Korean culture and language well enough to realize that they did in fact have a word (and therein a concept) for the God of the Bible: the creator and sustainer of all things, the righteous judge of all the Earth – 하나님 (Hananim).

It is as Paul the Apostle said: God has not left himself without witness in any culture, or amongst any group of people. (Acts 14:17)  Etymology gives us a window into this truth.

 

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