Sunday, June 7, 2009

We Unashamedly Villainous and Wicked Heathens

A talk with a dear friend this morning led to the roots of the word heathen. She had heard the word mostly in a socio-political context without the religious connotations. I looked it up in the Oxford English Dictionary and reacquainted myself with the etymology. I looked into similar words: heretic, villain, vulgar, wicked and pagan, to be exact. All except heretic (which comes from Greek āίρετικός, meaning able to choose) have roots in words meaning someone from the country, a rustic, a farmer, a peasant.

The word heathen, dating to at least 971, is the oldest as far as being used to mean a non-Christian. From the OED,
A. adj. 1. Applied to persons or races whose religion is neither Christian, Jewish, nor Muslim; pagan; Gentile. In earlier times applied also to Muslims; but in modern usage, for the most part, restricted to those holding polytheistic beliefs, esp. when uncivilized or uncultured.

The word has generally been assumed to be a direct derivative of Gothic hai{th}i, HEATH, as if ‘dweller on the heath’, taken as a kind of loose rendering of L. pāgānus (orig. ‘villager, rustic’, later, after Christianity became the religion of the towns, while the ancient deities were still retained in rural districts, ‘pagan, heathen’).

The first known recording of word pagan as being a non-christian heathen hearkens from around 1440 in Morte Arture. It is from the classical Latin pāgānus, meaning of or belonging to a country community. It's earlier forms are payen and paynim, meaning the same thing, recorded in a Kentish Sermon around 1275. The word itself probably dates from the 4th century, further back than heathen, but was used before in the Roman Empire to mean just a countryman or civilian.

Vulgar(from Latin vulgus, meaning common people) and villain (from Latin villa, country house, i.e. one from a country house) date from the 14th century. The word wicked (derived from OE wíc, town, village or farm) was first found recorded around 1275, not surprisingly, as an adjective for wifman (wickede wifman).

Well, hell, I'm proud to be among cuntry folk!

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