Skip to main content

WoM: 'Easter' or 'Pasche'

Before the AND starts its well-deserved Easter break, let’s have a look at the word - Easter - in its medieval context of multilingual England. While Middle English used the word ester(n for this Christian festival of the Resurrection, Anglo-Norman had the term pasche cognate with Medieval Latin's pascha (DMLBS 2133a). There are clearly two different etyma involved here.

The word Easter is remarkable in that is found only in English and German, which still uses Ostern to refer to the feast.[1] Other Germanic languages, and even most European languages, use some variant of pascha: e.g. Pâques (Modern French), pääsiäinen (Finnish), Pasua (Italian), Pasen (Dutch) and πάσχα (Greek). The etymology of that root is straightforward: the word derives from the Hebrew word pesah for ‘Passover’ (the Jewish commemoration of the Israelites' liberation from slavery and exodus from Egypt under Moses). There is evidence that already in the first century  Passover imagery and terminology became associated with Christ's resurrection.[2]

(Passover - London, British Library, MS Or. 2884, fol. 18r)

This original sense of pasche as a Jewish festival was often retained in medieval usage, as for example in this early fourteenth-century Anglo-Norman Bible paraphrase:

A la feste de paskes vyint Jhesus en Jerusalem (Bible1 33.9)
('On the feast of Easter, Jesus came to Jerusalem')

Unsurprisingly for such an important Christian feast, the term, with reference to the Resurrection, is well attested both in Anglo-Norman:

Un jur de Paske a la grant feste Au manger seit li rois (S Edw2 3278)
('One Easter day, on thos great festival, the king sat down to eat')

and in Medieval Latin:

reddendo [...] .j. denarium ad phasca pro omni servicio (Danelaw 385)
('by giving back [...] one penny at Easter for all service')

(Ressurection, Andrea di Bartolo (Italian, active 1389-1428))

It also acquires a place in Medieval English, and the MED lists two variants: pask(e and (with loss of the final velar stop)  pas(e 2):

Alle þe baronage at Pask afterward Com to Wynchester to coroune kyng Edward (Mannyng Chron.Pt.2 57)

In tyme of winter [...] Fro þe kalandes of November Unto þe pase, es risyng right At þe aght our of þe nyght (Ben.Rule(2) 1123)

Though largely falling out of usage in favour of Easter, these forms persist in English and are listed in the OED, pasch n. and pace n.2, as either archaic and historical or, in the case of pace regional (Northern and Scottish – though their most recent example is from 1955). However, English did preserve the etymon for adjectival usage in paschal, eg. paschal candle or paschal lamb. For some reason, the equivalent alternative, Easterly (‘of or relating to Easter’), fell out of usage by the end of the seventeenth century.[3]

Incidentally, pesah also produced the word phase in Anglo-Norman, cognate to phase n. in Middle English (see also OED phase n.1, considered historical) and Phase in Medieval Latin (DMLBS 2263c), solely in reference to Jewish Passover or, as is the case in the Anglo-Norman entry which is currently under revision, to the sacrificial lamb prepared for Passover:

il rosterent phase sur le feu (Bible2 300vb)
('they roasted the Pesah lamb on the fuire')

Returning to the term Easter, we can be less sure of its origin, although a number of theories have been brought forward. The word appears in Old English as easter or eastre in, for example, the writings of Aelfric and Bede. In his Latin De Temporum Ratione, written in 725, Bede explains the word as derived from Eostre/Eastre – the name, he claims, of an Anglo-Saxon goddess whose festival was celebrated around the vernal equinox (15.9). As no further reference to this goddess can be found anywhere else, most scholars believe that, while some pagan feast may have formed the basis of this word becoming associated with a Christian festival, Bede may have invented the goddess and her name (see OED etymology)[4].

(unidentified - Easter festive meal with a basket of decorated eggs?)

In the case of German, the only other language using a similar word, Duden’s etymological dictionary (Der grosse Duden, Vol. 7 Etymologie, Herkunftswörterbuch der deutschen Sprache, 1963, p. 485b) relates Ostern to Germanic ausro, cognate with Sanskrit uṣas, Avestan ušah- , ancient Greek ἠώς or ἕως, and classical Latin aurōra, the word for ‘dawn’. As the OED confirms, possibly a deification of dawn (cf. Eos, goddess of dawn in Greek mythology) may well have been associated with pagan celebrations of the beginning of spring. In times of Christianisation, the word, associated with rebirth, may have been transferred to the celebration of the Resurrection. Altogether an interpretation which is not all that different from Bede’s millennium old account.
Interestingly, such an interpretation indicates a common origin for Easter/Ostern (the festival) and east/Ost(en) (the point of the compass), both associated with dawn and the rising of the sun.

(The Resurrection of Christ by Dirk Bouts (1475))

In the context of intense lexical interchange between Anglo-Norman and English and of vernacular languages influencing Medieval Latin, it is perhaps remarkable that no trace of any form or derivative of the term Easter is currently listed by the AND or the DMLBS. This restricted circulation of the term, confined to English and German, is intriguing, and the reason why it did not cross over at all in other languages, particularly within medieval England, is one of those unpredictable characteristics of languages.

(For more information of the medieval tradition of decorating Easter eggs - for example, in 1290 Edward I's accounts include payment for 450 eggs decorated with gold leaf - and the history of Easter egg hunting, see this blog.)


[1] The additional nasal ending, sometimes found in Middle English (estern) but lexicalised in Modern German (Ostern) is probably derived from an original plural ending (Old English eastran).
[2]  'Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed' (1 Corinthians 5:7).
[3] Cf. MED esterlich.
[4] For further discussion and alternative derivations see D. H. Green Language and History in the Early Germanic World, Cambridge, 1998, pp. 351-53, and  J. Udolph and K. Schäferdieck in J. Hoops's Reallexikon der germanischen Altertumskunde, second edition, 2003, vol. 22, pp. 331-38.


Popular posts from this blog

Word of the month: nuncheon

It is mid-afternoon and the editorial team of the Anglo-Norman Dictionary is producing XML files of the latest batch of new entries for N-. They have been sitting in front of their computers and processing the data for about six hours now, and their typing fingers are noticeably slowing down. It is still too early to call it a day, but minds are inevitably beginning to wander. Fortunately, a resolution for the growing three-o’clock malaise is found in the Oxford English Dictionary under the word ‘ nuncheon ’, that is, ‘a drink taken in the afternoon; a light refreshment between meals; a snack’. ‘Nuncheon’ is a word labelled as archaic or regional – the sort of vocabulary encountered in nineteenth-century novels: Sir Walter Scott still wrote ‘I came to get my four-hours’ nunchion from you’ in his novel Fortunes Of Nigel (1822), and in Charlotte Mary Yonge’s Love and Life (1880) a sister tells her siblings ‘I will give you some bread and cheese and gingerbread for noonchin ’.

Word of the month: Nice! An Anglo-Norman insult.

English speakers may be surprised to learn that the etymology of nice is not very nice at all and that its semantic development is unparalleled in the Romance languages. This word, which style guides recommend that you avoid as it both ubiquitous and nearly devoid of all meaning, has a most complicated semantic evolution. The word nice is attested quite early in French – ca 1160 and has its roots in the Latin nescius , an adjective meaning ‘ignorant, unknowing’. [1] The word was used in French (and other Romance languages) in Middle English (c. 1400) to disparage people, actions and sayings as silly or foolish. This is the meaning the word retained in the Romance languages, though in French the word is rather uncommon today though you may find it in some older texts to refer to someone as simple or naive, such as those the TLF cites: Un brave homme, un peu nice, appelé Monthyon   ( Pommier, Colères, 1844 , p.66) The semantic development of the word nice  in English is a rat

Word of the Month: Purple

As the editors of the AND work their way towards the end of the revision of the letter ‘P’, one of the entries being rewritten is that of the colour purpre , that is, ‘purple’ [1] . Defining what that means is trickier than it first appears, as is often the case with colour words. Is purple a colour in the pink/red family or is it a shade of blue? To further complicate matters, there are in fact numerous words used in Anglo-Norman to refer to different shades of purple, some of which we’ll look at here. Purpre derives from the Latin purpura [DMLBS 2584c] , and doesn’t refer always to the colour we now know as purple. Originally, the term referred to the shade of dye obtained from a sea snail, which was a variable crimson or reddish shade, which is also known as Tyrian purple. The blue-purple colour found in medieval manuscripts is often plant based, normally from the plant known as turnsole though this colour was also created using a variety of other plants and berries. [2]