Category Archives: Vocabulary

Does the Word Church Have its Origins in Witchcraft?

In 2007 I came across an article that claimed that the English word church was derived from the name of Circe, a sorceress-goddess from Greek mythology. That simply is not so. When I went on the internet, I found many articles making the same claim. A lot of them are worded the same way, and many of the web sites have similar themes, so I suspect that they all got their information from the same source.

The oldest source I could find was from 1898, and this was a dictionary of fable by E. Cobham Brewer (see http://www.bartleby.com/81/ ). Since most dictionaries are compilations, I am sure that Mr. Brewer was not the first person to make this connection. However, it was during this time period that scholars often made large leaps of logic based on spurious etymology. I recall once reading a old paper from the early twentieth century that said that the name Odysseus (or Ulysses) was related to the Greek word for bear (arkios, source of the English word arctic—because the two northern constellations were named for bears). I thought that was a cool idea because I liked the story of Odysseus and my last name means “bear.” Maybe I was related to Odysseus! Both relations are bogus…in case you could not guess. Those Greek words are not similar at all.

I first read about this supposed connection in an article entitled “Church of the Mind” by Bill Cassada (formerly posted at http://www.thelionsheart.org/ ). The article points out that the famous witch-goddess from Homer’s Odyssey who turned Odysseus’ men into pigs was Circe, or Kirke in Greek. The article then notes that in Old English the word church was spelled circe or cyrice, and in other Northern European languages was spelled kirke, like the Greek mythological figure. The article then goes on to say that the word church was derived from a Greek cognate that relates to witchcraft. 

Other articles I read note that some of the early English translators like Wycliffe and Tyndale often translated the Greek word ekklesia (the word church in most translations) as “congregation,” “assembly,” or another word different form church. Actually, Mr. Cassada’s article is really a very thoughtful article about what the Bible says the church is supposed to be. Mr. Cassada tries to make a distinction between “the church” and “the ekklesia.” I understand the point, but the linguistics is bogus.

Anyway, I have taught language and language history for a number of years. I studied some linguistics in graduate school, and I have read and taught Homer more times than I care to recall. I also studied Old English under some of the most highly esteemed Medievalists in the world. I might not be a professional linguist, but I am no tyro. I want to examine the claims of Cassada, Brewer, and others who make a linguistic connection between mythical Greek witches and the European word for church.

The Word Kyriakos in Bible Greek

The Greek word kyriakos is indeed where the English word church comes from. However, the article’s analysis of the word kyriakos is incorrect.

The Greek word kyrie means “Lord.” It is used hundreds of times in the New Testament. Some churches recite or sing the “Kyrie Eleison,” which means “Lord, have mercy.”

The word kyriakos is simply the genitive or possessive form the word kyrie. It means “the Lord’s” or “belonging to the Lord.” It is used twice in the New Testament (I Corinthians 11:20 and Revelation 1:10). It is, I admit, not quite the same as “the called out ones,” but the meaning is not that different. After all, the people who are called out or chosen by the Lord belong to Him!

Brewer in his Dictionary of Phrase and Fable thought it significant that words that derived from kyriakos appear in other northern European languages before they appear in English. He mentions Celtic languages, but the Celts in Britain were evangelized long before the English. The Britons were first evangelized in the second century, possibly earlier. The mother of the Emperor Constantine was a Christian Briton who lived in the third century. St. Patick worked in the fourth. The first Christian mission to the English did not begin until A. D. 597. Brewer’s example of French is cirque, which means “circus” (e.g., Cirque du Soleil), not church. The French word for church is église which comes from the other Greek word for church, ekklesia. He notes the “Scotch” for church is kirk, but that is not Gaelic or Celtic, that is Scots English, and is a mere regional variation of pronunciation that is the same as the English word church itself. Brown is at best curious, but really mistaken here. His explanation confirms the above observation about spurious etymology.

What Works in Greek is Different in Other Languages

Also, in Greek the y letter or upsilon (υ) is not interchangeable with the i letter, iota (ι), as it is in many of the Western European languages. The upsilon is pronounced like the French u or the German or Mandarin ü; in other words, it is just about unpronounceable to native English speakers! It is very different from either iota or the letter i. In Greek, Kyr would never become Kir, or vice versa. Yes, the English or Latin name for the witch in The Odyssey is Circe. In the Homeric Greek, her name is Kirkê. While that is similar to some Northern and Western European words for church, there is no relationship in the Greek. Circe or Kirkê is simply a woman’s name and probably means “bird,” maybe “hawk.” It is onomatopoetic, like the Hebrew name Zipporah (Moses’s wife, whose name means “sparrow”). If Circe has any similarity to any English word, that word would be caw or chirp, not church. In other words, the word church literally means “belonging to the Lord,” and its roots have nothing to do with witchcraft or the witch of the Odyssey.

I should note here also that, for similar reasons, the name Circe does not have a direct relationship to the Latin word circus, which means “circle” or “ring” and where we get the English words circle, circulate, circus, and so on. I mention that for those who see another connection with the name of the character in the Odyssey that again has nothing to do with church.

For what it is worth, the Old English spelling of church followed the Medieval Latin spelling and pronunciation system. A c followed by an e or i is pronounced like Modern English ch. For example, child in Old English is pronounced the same as our modern word but it was spelled cild. So cyrice or circe in Old English is pronounced the same way we pronounce church today, possibly with an extra syllable after the r. In Scotland and parts of Northern England, because of the Danish influence, the c was pronounced like a k, which is the way the word is still pronounced in Scotland—kirk. It is the same word, just pronounced a bit differently. It is like noting that Rick and Rich are both nicknames for Richard. You say tomato, I say tomahto.

This Does Not Discredit the Whole Article at All

Having said all that, I do agree with Bill Cassada’s message, his exhortation. The church often has become an institution that requires the accomplishment of certain works to prove worthiness or ability in the way that the occult does. Calvinists used to call this priestcraft. For example, when Robinson Crusoe asks Friday about the religion of his people, Friday tells him that only the wise old men of the tribe can speak to their gods. Crusoe, the archetypal Calvinist of English literature, notes the following:

By this I observed that there is priestcraft even amongst the most blinded, ignorant pagans in the world, and the policy of making a secret religion in order to preserve the veneration of the people to the clergy is not only to be found in the Roman but perhaps among all religions in the world…(See http://wyeth.artpassions.net/crusoe23-24.html )

The reason that some of the early English Bible translations used words other than church to translate ekklesia had to do with the institution of the Roman Catholic or Orthodox Churches at the time. Those translators believed that if they wrote “church,” the average reader would think of the hierarchical institution centered at Rome or Constantinople, rather than a group of believers in Christ.

According to Romans 12, God has created us with different inherent giftings. These are motivational by nature. They are not occasional gifts as I Corinthians 12 from the Holy Spirit. They are not ministry gifts as Ephesians 4 from Christ. They are part of our created makeup “that God hath dealt to every man” (Romans 12:3 KJV). The teacher is not motivated by the same things that motivate the exhorter or encourager.

Cassada’s message is excellent. I am sure that some of the other articles that speak of a Circe-Church connection still have some good exhortation on the role of the church. But the teacher in me also has to note that the story of word origins is inaccurate. To use the language of Romans 12, Mr. Cassada is an exhorter, and I think his message is valid even if some of the technicalities are not.

Oh, and don’t believe everything you read on the Internet…

Copyright © 2007-2009, James Bair. All rights reserved.

When vs. While

Dear N:

You wrote:

1-He smoked a cigar when he wrote a poem.

2-He smoked a cigar every time he wrote a poem.
Can’t these sentences have two meanings:

a-He smoked a cigar after he wrote a poem.

b-He smoked a cigar while he wrote a poem.

Yes, they can. That is why we sometimes use other words to make such things clearer like “while” or “whenever.” Presumably, if the speaker or writer were just using “when,” the context would make it clear. For example, “He smoked a cigar to celebrate when he wrote a poem,” would almost certainly mean “a” since it has been a tradition (though not as popular as it used to be) to light a cigar after any significant accomplishment (having a child, winning a sports championship, getting promoted).

Various Infintive Forms and How They Are Used

Dear Navi,

You wrote:

Which of the lettered interpretations correspond to which of the numbered sentences below:

 1-He was happy to finish the project.

c – however it could be d if the context allowed it

2-He was happy to be finishing the project. –

a – rarely b if the context allowed it

3-He was excited to finish the project.

Same as 1

4-He was excited to be finishing the project.

Same as 2

a-He was happy/excited that he was in the process of finishing the project

b-He was happy/excited that he was going to finish the project in the future

c-He was happy/excited that he had finished the project

d-He would willingly accept to take on the task of finishing the project.

“To be finishing” amounts to a progressive infinitive, so that means continuous or continuing action. Since there is no future infinitive in modern English, #2 could mean b if the context made it clear. Usually, however, the verb would be in the future tense as well: “He will be happy to finish the project tomorrow.”

Using Only and Just in Different Places in the Sentence

Dear Mr. T:

You wrote:

1-We only don’t have to wash the dishes.

2-We don’t only have to wash the dishes.

3-We don’t have to only wash the dishes.

4-We just don’t have to wash the dishes.

5-We don’t just have to wash the dishes.

6-We don’t have to just wash the dishes.

Which of the above mean:

a-We don’t have to wash the dishes but we have to do everything else.

Which mean:

b-We can do other things as well. We do not need to limit ourselves to washing the dishes.

and which mean:

c-Not only do we have to wash the dishes, we have to do other things as well.

Again, this may vary slightly depending on context. In each case ask which word is the “only” modifying?

 1-We only don’t have to wash the dishes. This is awkward because it modifies a negative. It really serves little purpose here. Perhaps it suggests “a,” but there is but there is not enough context to say for sure.

2- We don’t only have to wash the dishes. This would normally be followed by another clause or sentence. The implication is certainly “c” because “only” modifies the imperative “have to.”

3-We don’t have to only wash the dishes. This also would normally be followed by another clause or sentence. Because “only” modifies “wash,” it might suggest that you have to do something else to to the dishes, i.e., We have to dry them and put them away. However, depending on the context, it could be seen as modifying the whole expression “wash the dishes,” so that it is suggesting that you not only have  to wash the dishes, you have to do other chores as well.

4-We just don’t have to wash the dishes. This depends on the emphasis. It could mean the same as #1, but the word “just” is a little stronger here so it could be spoken with emphasis. It does not suggest that we have to do anything else when spoken with emphasis.

5-We don’t just have to wash the dishes. Same as #2.

6-We don’t have to just wash the dishes. Same as #3

“Not Of” – A Little Old-Fashioned

Dear N:

You wrote:

1-Those words were spoken by a man not of faith.

2-Those words were spoken by a man who was not of faith.

3-Those words were spoken by a man who was of faith.

 They look incorrect to me. I think ‘1’ and ‘2’ would work if it was followed by something like: ‘but of reason’.

It may sound a little awkward, but this actually echoes the language of the King James Version of the Bible, the standard Bible in English for about 450 years. Romans 14:23 says “for whatsoever is not of faith is sin.” While that language might be slightly archaic, it still is suggestive because of the long history of the Authorized Version. A modern version would probably say something like “whatever is not done in faith is sin.”

If you are familiar with the Bible, then you know that Romans is one of the New Testament books that emphasizes salvation by faith in Jesus Christ, not by doing or avoiding specific works. The context is a dispute in the Roman church about eating meat. The author’s response is that the specific work of abstaining from meat is not the issue, but whether either action (eating meat or not eating meat) is done in faith.

Anyone who is seriously studying the English language, especially its literature, should be familiar with the King James Bible (a.k.a. the Authorized Version) because it is alluded to so frequently. It often has nothing to do with the faith of the author, but that the King James Bible has just been a part of the culture for so long.

Try To vs. Try And

Dear Mr. K:,

You wrote:

 I really have to question your stating that the usage of “try and” is wrong. I recommend more research into it. Sure, “try to” is correct and seems to makes more sense, but “try and” is actually probably older.

“Try and” is a common colloquialism, and nearly everyone understand what it means. It does suggest something different from “try to,” however. “Try to” suggests encouragement while “try and” suggests the listener has not tried or taken the task seriously.

In most cases, “try to” is more precise. In any formal or standard writing situation, “try and” should probably be avoided.

Be Direct in Your Language

Dear N:

You wrote:

 Which of these sentences are correct? They are all supposed to mean: “Just because a man hated the victim of a crime does not mean he is guilty. We know that he hated the victim, but we cannot conclude from that that he is guilty.”

1-A man is not guilty because he hated the victim of a crime.

This is OK.

2-A man is not guilty SIMPLY because he hated the victim of a crime.

This is better, perhaps more common would be JUST instead of SIMPLY, but either is fine.

3-It is not because he hated the victim of a crime that a man is guilty.

This is technically OK, but it is hard to follow.

4-It is not SIMPLY because he hated the victim of a crime that a man is guilty.

This also is technically OK but harder to follow.

When, Every Time

Dear N:

You wrote:

 1-He smoked a cigar when he wrote a poem.

2-He smoked a cigar every time he wrote a poem.

Can’t these sentences have two meanings:

a-He smoked a cigar after he wrote a poem.

b-He smoked a cigar while he wrote a poem.

Yes, they can. That is why we sometimes use other words to make such things clearer like “while” or “whenever.” Presumably, if the speaker or writer were just using “when,” the context would make it clear. For example, “He smoked a cigar to celebrate when he wrote a poem,” would almost certainly mean “a” since it has been a tradition (though not as popular as it used to be) to light a cigar after any significant accomplishment (having a child, winning a sports championship, getting promoted).

 

 

 

Some, Certain, Any

Dear Navi,

You wrote:

1-They did not know if SOME of those medications would have a positive effect on the patient.

2-They did not know if CERTAIN of those medications would have a positive effect on the patient.

Can’t these sentences mean two things:

a-As regards some of the medications, they did not know if they would have a positive effect on the patient.

b-They did not know if ANY of the medications would have a positive effect on the patient.

There is really no difference among any of the 4 sentences. Usually CERTAIN would be used if the speakers or writers were expecting specific medications to have the effects, but the overall meaning is the same. “As regards” is considered stilted. It is understandable but needlessly wordy and not commonly used. Just say “Regarding” or “Concerning.”

Just with Participles

Dear Navi:

You wrote:

 Are these sentences correct:

1-He is as hard-working as ever, just changing his job. (Meaning: He is as hard-working as ever. He is just changing my job.)

I think you mean “his job.” Yes, that would be what it means.

2-John was really happy, just standing there listening to the waves.

This is fine.

3-John had a smile on his face, just standing there listening to the waves.

This is fine.

4-John was not doing anything, just standing there listening to the waves.

This is fine.

I do not like ‘1’. I think the “meaning” sentence is better. ‘1’ makes it sound that he is hard-working AS he is changing his job.  

No, remember that in English participial phrases are usually very literal. He is merely changing his job, not his work ethic.

I believe in spoken English, a full stop instead of a comma would solve the problem.

I am as creative as ever. (I am) Just changing my job. In written English, the second ‘I am’ has to be there.

Either way is fine.

I think ‘4’ also could use a full stop instead of the comma. It would then be equivalent to:

4a-John was not doing anything. He was just standing there listening to the waves.

Either one is fine and says the same thing.

I might sound as if I think I know what I am talking about. If I did not have strong doubts about what I was saying, I would not ask the question!!

I hope this helps.