My old blog, the Word of the Day, is defunct, and I’m getting ready to take it down. Before I do, though, I’m going to repost some of the best words here over the next few weeks. Enjoy!
Faith ultimately comes from Proto Indo European bhidh, meaning something like “persuade” or “compel”. When bhidh came into Latin, it became fidere, “to trust”, presumably because something sufficiently compelling would be trustworthy…
The nominal form was fides, which became feid in Old French and faith in English in 1250. It wasn’t used in a Christian sense until 1382, although apparently religions have been called “faiths” since about 1300.
Faith and many words that sound similar make up an interesting family. It begins with unfettered freedom (”f”) that is flexible and spreads out wide (long “a”), but is then drawn up along a “perilous path” (”th”). The idea appears to be that faith is the state of having one’s beliefs, which a priori are completely free and flexible, constrained onto a particular path. Faith, in other words, means limiting your beliefs.
Other words that start out with the “FAY” sound seem to represent a similar process of starting out unconstrained, and then limiting or blocking the energy in some way:
- fate: a free path is directed toward a specific target.
- fade: something that had been going along unconstrained is brought to a decision / door (ending).
- fail: something that had been going strong is dispersed into something shapeless.
- fey: here, with no final consonant, the initial freedom and expansion is not ended…
A word native to English, derived from Old English fyr, in turn from Proto-Germanic fuir, which descended from Proto-Indo-European paewr, and is related to Greek pyr, the source of our words pyre and pyrite.
Proto-Indo-European apparantly had two main words for fire: paewr and egni (source of Latin igni, and English ignite, igneus, etc.). Paewr referred to fire as a substance, an inanimate thing; but egni referred to fire as an animate, living thing. (Water also had two analogous forms in PIE.) This distinction was lost in all the daughter languages.
Phonosemantically, fire is a process that is expansive, and oriented toward mind and art (long “i”). It begins freely, spontaneously (”f”), and results in the strong energy of “r”. The reading “mind and art” is interesting, and appropriate considering the association of fire with inspiration. (Note the primary syllable of inspire – like fire, but its source is a simple point location.) In this connection, the “discharge” meaning of fire — whether firing a weapon or firing an employee or firing off an email — signifies a spontaneous, almost random energy release.
The greatest of the old Celtic fire festivals, Beltane, occurs in the middle of spring; and in that holiday, the energy of fire is associated with springtime’s great blossoming, and the invigoration that appears in all things Earthly — the weather, the sea, the plants, the animals, and humanity.
The history of the word free is both delightful and sad.
Originally it is from the Proto Indo European root prijos, meaning “dear, beloved”. This root has many proud descendants, including filibuster, friend, Frigg, and Friday. Note in particular that a variant of prijos, pritu, came to mean “peace”, and lies behind Siegfried (”peace of victory”), afraid (the “a-” means “not”, so “afraid” is “not at peace”), Godfrey (”peace of God”), and Jeffrey / Geoffrey (”land of peace”).
In Proto Germanic, prijos became frijaz. Around this time, frijaz extended its core meaning of “beloved” to also mean “free, not enslaved”. Why? Because it’s at this time that the Germanic peoples began to take slaves into their households. Those in your household who were beloved were also free.
In Old English, frijaz’s descendant freo continued to mean both “free” and “beloved” (in fact it often was used to mean “wife”), but eventually the “beloved” meaning dropped away, and freo was simplified to free.
Free begins with “f”, a sound which symbolizes freedom directly. In free, this freedom is infused with great energy (”r”), and persists a long time despite hardship (long “e”); so that threats to freedom are indirectly encoded in the sounds of the word itself.