Easter

Today is Easter. Foreign students of English may wonder, as native speakers rarely seem to, whether there’s a connection between Easter and east. There is. Modern English east is descended from the identically spelled Old English east. (The word had two syllables, e-ast. The vowels were pronounced as in Spanish, and the first vowel was long, meaning that it was held for a longer time than the second vowel.) Old English east developed from the Indo-European root *aus- ‘to shine,’ so that in etymological terms east is the direction from which the sun shines forth at dawn.

English Easter [Sun]day traces back to Old English Easterdæg. The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica explained the first part of that compound (which was pronounced E-ast-er or E-ast-re, with the first vowel long): “The name Easter (Ger. Ostern), like the names of the days of the week, is a survival from the old Teutonic [i.e. Germanic] mythology. According to Bede (De Temp. Rat. c. xv.) it is derived from Eostre, or Ostdra, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring, to whom the month answering to our April, and called Eostur-monath, was dedicated. This month, Bede says, was the same as the mensis paschalis, ‘when the old festival was observed with the gladness of a new solemnity.'” We can add that Anglo-Saxon Easter (or Eastre or Eostre or Ostdra) probably arose as a goddess of the dawn that brightens the eastern [from Old English easterne] horizon at the beginning of each day; and that the spring, of which Easter was a goddess, is the season in which the amount of sunshine gradually increases. Spring is metaphorically the dawning of the new year.

English east and the synonymous Spanish este are clearly related, but only scholars are likely to know that Spanish took este (originally leste, with the definite article attached, as still in Portuguese) from French est, and that French est had come from Middle English est. It’s curious that the word started out as east in Old English, became est in Middle English, and is now back to east (though with a different pronunciation). It’s also curious that both French and Spanish should have borrowed the word, directly or indirectly, from English.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

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5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Don Levesque
    Apr 25, 2011 @ 19:22:44

    I wonder wonder what the Spanish and French words were for EAST before they borrowed from English. Perhaps some form of ORIENT.

    Reply

  2. wordconnections
    Apr 26, 2011 @ 11:41:54

    You’ve hit it. In Breve diccionario etimológico de la lengua castellana, Joan Corminas shows Spanish oriente attested from around 1140. The Dictionnaire historique de la langue française, under the direction of Alain Rey, says that Old French borrowed orient from Latin, with the word attested in 1080.

    Reply

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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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