Where does “forgiveness” come from?

Since I began discussing forgiveness as the topic of my new book project, I have had a number of very smart friends send over great research materials.

One person pointed out the two Greek words used in the Bible for forgiveness: charizomai, which translates roughly to “grace” or to “bestow a favor unconditionally” and aphiemi, which translates to “set free,” “let go,” or “cast off.”

Both are good words to use when discussing forgiveness in a general manner. But, unfortunately, neither are useful for a discussion of the etymology (origin) of the word we use (or misuse) everyday: we do not speak Greek and I’m not anchoring my discussion in Christianity. (Instead, Christianity is only one facet of the discussion).

The bigger the vocabulary, the more precise the language

English is a very precise language with a huge vocabulary. Experts who study the English language say that there are approximately 350,000 words (although some estimates go up to one million words and the Oxford English Dictionary says that English has 273,000) in our vocabulary (including words that have fallen out of usage and words adopted from other languages). Spanish, on the other hand, has about 150,000.

Greek, however, is known as one of the world’s richest languages, with dictionaries and experts estimating that the language contains anywhere from 200,000 to 5 million words.

Obviously, counting vocabulary words is not an exact science. But we can see here that Greek has more words to choose from when we talk about the idea of forgiveness. No wonder they are able to use two, very distinct words.

What about “pardon” or “reconciliation”

Yes, these words can be seen as synonyms or similar words to “forgive.” But in English, we seldom say, “Pardon me” (from the French perdonare and the French pardoner) when referring to anything other than accidentally bumping into people or burping in public.

“Reconciliation” in English, unlike forgivess, is a two-way street. Both parties have to agree.

Which leads us back to “forgive.”

Word Origin

From approximately the 5th to the 12th century, the people of England and southern Scotland spoke what scholars call Anglo Saxon, a Germanic language that was comprised of numerous dialects depending on geography. This is also often referred to “Old English.”

That all changed with the Norman Invasion of 1066 CE, when William the Conquerer and his armies introduced French to the region. For a number of centuries after the invasion, most “learned” Brits were bilingual and Old English evolved into what we call Middle English.

“Forgive” is derived from the Anglo Saxon forgiefan, a word from the West Saxon dialect which means “to give,” “allow,” “pardon an offense,” or to “forgive.” The Norman invasion introduced words like pardoner centuries later.

Not very helpful, huh? I was hoping for something a little more enlightening as well. We don’t have additional words for forgiveness with subtle differences to help with nuance (as we can see, “pardon” and “reconciliation” are poor replacements).

So how did this word with such humble beginnings become so loaded and so weaponized in the 21st century? How did a language so rich refuse to adopt or create new words to help embrace one of the fundamental concepts of society and community living?

How did we let forgiveness f*ck us up so much, and what do we do about it?

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