Cretin
Posted: 01 April 2014 09:03 AM   [ Ignore ]
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I was brought up to understand that cretin derives from chretien, on the principle that people thus afflicted might look and behave like beasts but were nevertheless baptised Christians. However, I have a notion that I recently heard somewhere that this derivation has been exploded, or at least challenged. The online OED entry hasn’t been updated. Can anyone shed any light?

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Posted: 01 April 2014 02:01 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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I think that the “Take our Word for it” entry (Feb 1999) is good.

While the original meaning of cretin was, literally, “Christian”, the word “Christian” was not being used as we would use it today. In our pluralistic, multi-cultural society, we recognize Christianity to be just one of many competing belief systems. Thus, to say that someone is a Christian is to state that s/he is not a Buddhist, a Marxist, a Hindu or a Jew. This seems rather obvious to us, doesn’t it? Yet this wasn’t quite how the word was understood by the medieval inhabitants of remote Alpine valleys. From their limited and parochial perspective it seemed that everyone in the world was Christian. Thus, the word became synonymous with “human being”.

But then they end with this:

We must admit that we were quite surprised to find that the word Christian itself was not used in English until 1526. How did English-speaking Christians refer to themselves before that date? Did they not need such a word before they came into contact with non-Christians?

This makes me suspicious as the word was used in the book of Acts to mean the earliest followers of this faith. That, of course, was in Greek (Χριστιανός) and not in Latin which seems to be the etymon for the modern Cretin. The Vulgate used “Christianum” at Acts 26:28. So, I don’t know.

The understanding I have of the derivation of chrétien > Cretin was to suggest that these folks were innocents incapable of sin is moving, but still suspect in my view.

I’ve never heard the derivation of “people thus afflicted might look and behave like beasts but were nevertheless baptised Christians. “ before.

[ Edited: 01 April 2014 02:10 PM by Oecolampadius ]
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Posted: 01 April 2014 07:49 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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But then they end with this:

We must admit that we were quite surprised to find that the word Christian itself was not used in English until 1526. How did English-speaking Christians refer to themselves before that date? Did they not need such a word before they came into contact with non-Christians?

I’m suspicious, too.  English-speaking Christians came into contact with non-Christians during the Crusades, and non-Christian Vikings came into contact with them, way before 1526 so I would think they at least had a word for “Christian” and one for “non-Christian”.  No?

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Posted: 02 April 2014 04:43 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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It seems the Take Our Word for It piece relies on the OED. While normally that’s a good thing, this particular entry has problems. First, it is old, untouched since the nineteenth century except to add the sense of Christian Democrat. It also contains some severe editorial irregularities, e.g., citations in Latin and Anglo-Norman are not called out as non-English (the OED online gives a date of 1285, but that’s based on a Latin citation, not an English one). The 1526 dates comes from the earliest citation in the OED of the word used as a noun.

But the biggest problem with the OED entry is that it splits hairs between two different forms of the word. The entry for Christian only covers one form of the word, which was adopted from Latin in the sixteenth century. For the older cristen form, you have to go to another entry. There you will see the word has been used as both an adjective and a noun since Old English, where it appears in the late-ninth-century translations of Bede and Orosius. In splitting the entries the OED editors are technically correct, but end up being misleading.

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Posted: 02 April 2014 04:47 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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The Historical Thesaurus of the OED gives the earlier terms c(h)ristenman(n) OE-1523, c(h)risten OE-1530, lim(b) OE-1607, disciple c1380-, saint 1382-1487, Nazarene 1382-, member of Christ a1400-1582.

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Posted: 07 April 2014 07:31 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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I’ve added a Big List entry for Christian.

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