Reading time: 10 – 15 minutes
Whether or not you’re a believer, it’s undeniable that the idea of the divine has had a big influence on human history. Connecting our lives and our earthly home to higher realms and to those realms’ inhabitants, the gods, is an ancient preoccupation, which is often reflected in our languages.
Consequently, there are many words in the modern English lexicon that have a divine etymology — that is to say, they derive from the name of a god, goddess or other kind of supernatural being. In some words, the connection is obvious; the English names for the planets (Jupiter, Mars, Uranus, etc.) originate in the figures of Roman and Greek mythology, while chemical elements like Thorium and Promethium make no bones about their source of inspiration.
In some words, however, the original deity is well hidden in either appearance or meaning, and the link needs illuminating via the help of a friendly etymologist. This the goal of this month’s blog post! Here is my selection of everyday English words with heavenly origins, which I hope will interest and maybe even surprise you. I’ll admit, the two reactions I am after are oh my God! and oh my word!
For the purposes of the post, I include both names and established epithets for certain gods, and I have tried to include only words for which the god-connection is a strictly necessary link in the etymology of the English descendant. Some gods emerged from the personification of a thing or concept, and thus share their name with a common noun, such as Ancient Greek îris (‘rainbow’) and the goddess Îris, or érōs (‘love’) and winged Érōs (bear in mind that the difference in upper- and lower-case letters is a later writing convention). From these, we get iris and erotic, but I’d argue that it is not because of the two gods specifically that English has ended up with the words. So, while there is a godly aspect to be explored in words like iris and erotic, it is not crucial to their derivation.
Let’s start off with a well-known set of sneaky gods: the deities of the days of the week. Alongside the sun and the moon, the pre-Christian gods Tiw, Woden, Thunor, Frig and Saturn still live on in Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
The first four of these were chosen at a prehistoric point in time as equivalents for the gods of the Roman system; in terms of personality traits and functions, Tiw, Woden, Thunor and Frig match up to Roman Mars, Mercury, Jupiter and Venus.
|Diēs Lūnae||Monday||Lundi||Dydd Llun|
|Diēs Mārtis||Tuesday||Mardi||Dydd Mawrth|
|Diēs Mercuriī||Wednesday||Mercredi||Dydd Mercher|
|Diēs Iovis||Thursday||Jeudi||Dydd Iau|
|Diēs Veneris||Friday||Vendredi||Dydd Gwener|
|Diēs Sāturnī||Saturday||Samedi||Dydd Sadwrn|
|Diēs Sōlis||Sunday||Dimanche||Dydd Sul|
A little grammar note: because Tiw, Woden and Thunor (better known by their Old Norse names, Tyr, Odin and Thor) are masculine in gender, their derived days contain the old masculine genitive ending -s. Tuesday is quite literally Tiw’s day, Wednesday is Woden’s day, and Thursday is Thunor’s. Friday lacks this -s ending, because Frig is feminine. You can see this grammatical pattern in German today, with -s used at the end of masculine and neuter genitive nouns like des Tages and des Kindes, but with no such ending for feminine genitives like der Frau.
Why Saturday also lacks the -s and is not Saturnsday is intriguing, since Saturn was also masculine. It may be because Saturn was a Roman god and therefore his name retained its original Latin grammar, specifically Sāturnī in the genitive. The historical record does show that Saturnsday, with the Germanic -s, was indeed a possible variant from Old English times until as late as the 17th century¹, but this has not made it into the modern language.
Another deity of the pre-Christian pantheon may be behind the word Easter too. This was the explanation of Bede, who wrote:
“Eostur-monath, qui nunc paschalis mensis interpretatur, quondam a dea illorum quae Eostre vocabatur, et cui in illo festa celebrabant, nomen habuit“‘Easter-month, which now is interpreted as the Paschal month, was once named for the goddess of theirs called Eostre, for whom in that month they held festivals’
~ Bede, The Reckoning of Time 15
This etymology is rightly treated with some suspicion though, for the simple reason that we have no other mention of the venerable goddess Eostre! It seems unlikely that she is nothing but a fabrication by Bede, but nonetheless, if we want to be good etymologists, we can’t propose much on the basis of this single attestation.
The traditional gods of Rome have a big presence in English vocabulary. Because of the terminology and theories of astrology, a person can be jovial (from Latin Iuppiter), mercurial (from Mercurius) or saturnine (from Sāturnus). Mars is the Roman god most associated with warfare, and he thus gives English the word martial, as in court martial, a phrase that curiously displays the Noun-Adjective order of French. Mars also makes an appearance in Mardi gras (literally ‘fat Tuesday’), the French phrase for the celebrations before the start of Lent.
Sex and love are in the remit of the goddess Venus, so sexual diseases are venereal, just as fauna are of concern to Fauna, a goddess of nature. One Italian island was thought to be the workplace of the fiery god Vulcan, and hence the derived adjective Vulcānus has, via Italian, given English the word volcano.
I like the idea that there may even be a god in your jeans, which trace their name back to the Italian city of Genoa (just as denim comes de Nîmes in France). There are multiple strong theories about the origins of the name of Genoa itself, one of which is that it has a connection to the god Janus, the two-faced Roman deity of doorways and beginnings. It’s a theory that goes back at least to the medieval era and to Jacopo Da Varagine², an archbishop of Genoa, although it’s not without competing etymologies.
One more common word with sacred origins is money. The most prominent gods of the Roman pantheon had temples on the Capitoline Hill, right in the heart of the city of Rome. One of these was Juno, also known with an additional epithet as Iūno Monēta. Her temple was an important site for the manufacture of coinage — hence not only the word money, but also mint.
As well as Latin, Ancient Greek is another source of godly words in English. For one, Greek is the source of enthusiasm, from the adjective éntheos, roughly meaning ‘one in (en) whom there is a god (theós)’. Theós also formed part of the names Theódōros and Theódōra, the ‘god gift’. The latter of these seems to have led, via its Russian derivative Fedora, to the fedora hat. Appropriately, theós is also the root of atheist.
As for specific figures, the adjective in Ancient Greek for something to do with the goat-legged Pan is panikós, which is the origin of English panic, since he was thought to cause feelings of intense fear. Furthermore, a collection of maps is an atlas, apparently coined by the geographer Gerardus Mercator after the titan Atlas, doomed to bear the heavens on his shoulders. If you’ve ever talked about an airtight seal as hermetic, you’ve indirectly invoked the god Hermes. This extra secure type of seal has inherited a name from occult science and the field of alchemy, much of which traces its intellectual heritage back to the writings ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus, an Egyptian-Greek syncretism of the gods Thoth and Hermes.
This leads me nicely to Egypt, which is an exonym for the country that goes back to Ancient Greek Aíguptos. The official Arabic endonym for Egypt on the other hand is Miṣr. It is from Aíguptos that we have the word Gypsy, due to a false belief that Romani people originated in Egypt, as well as Copt.
Where though is the god in Egypt? He’s there in the last two letters, -pt. There lies Ptah, an important Egyptian creator god. His centre of worship was in Memphis, one of the major cities and a sometime capital of Ancient Egypt. The theory goes that the name of Ptah’s temple, ḥwt-kꜣ-ptḥ (‘house of the soul of Ptah’), was extended first to Memphis and then to the Nile and to Egypt in general among Greek speakers³. Thus Egyptian ḥwt-kꜣ-ptḥ led to Greek Aíguptos, and in turn to Egypt.
Another extremely prominent Egyptian deity is Amun, king of the gods. His importance is reflected in the name of the pharaoh Tutankhamun, who was originally called Tutankhaten until the death of Akhenaten, the decline of the Amarna religion and the reversion of Egypt back to the traditional gods. His monarchical status meant that Amun was identified by the Greeks and Romans as their Zeus and Jupiter. There was a famous oracle of and temple to Jupiter-Amun in the Siwa oasis, where Alexander the Great paid a visit, and a special kind of salt found in that area was therefore known as sāl ammōniacus⁴ — thus Amun has given us the name of the compound ammonia.
Moving now to India, the major god Vishnu has taken earthly form and appeared so far in nine different incarnations, including as Rama and Krishna. Together with a tenth future incarnation, these are the daśāvatārāḥ, the ‘ten descents’ of Vishnu, wherein the word for the descent of the god into our world is avatāraḥ. From this Sanskrit word, we get avatar.
Jagannāthaḥ is another Sanskrit word, a compound that means ‘lord (nāthaḥ) of the world (jagat)’. The god Jagannath is widely identified as a form of Krishna, and he is especially associated with and revered in the city of Puri in Odisha. There you can find the Jagannath Temple and the annual Puri Chariot Festival, during which images of Jagannath and his two siblings are pulled on gigantic wheeled structures by teams of volunteers to another temple. This awesome spectacle led to the adoption (and modification) of the word by English, resulting in juggernaut, something of massive size and powerful force.
Hopefully this small miscellany of etymology has interested you and has demonstrated my initial point, namely that the divine continues to have a considerable influence on our words. Look a little closer at your language and you may find a god looking back at you!
I could go on, I must admit. Personal names are a great source of godly words; many first names in English derive from Hebrew, and thus contain references to God. For example, various names that end in -el (Samuel, Immanuel, even my own Daniel) get this element from Hebrew el, meaning ‘god’ or ‘God’. Such an investigation should really wait though until I actually know some Hebrew.
All that remains is for to me to sign off and say goodbye —or as it originally was, God be with you.
1: “Saturday, n. and adv.”. OED Online. Oxford University Press
2. Beneš, C. E. (ed). (2019). Part one: On the foundation of Genoa. In Jacopo Da Varagine’s Chronicle of the city of Genoa. Manchester University Press.
3: Drew Griffith, R. (1997). Criteria for Evaluating Hypothetical Egyptian Loan-Words in Greek: The Case of Αἴγυπτος. Illinois Classical Studies 22. 1–6.
4: Avenas, P. (2020). The amazing history of element names. EDP sciences.
Most other information has been sourced from or checked on The Oxford English Dictionary and Encyclopaedia Britannica. Feel free to ask for specific references.
Featured image (detail of Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam) from here.