Christian doesn’t have a particularly surprising or unusual etymology, but it is a good example of the care one must take when consulting a dictionary. If one looks up the word in the Oxford English Dictionary and then takes a casual read of the entry, one may be deceived into thinking that the word’s use in English is surprisingly recent, dating only to the sixteenth century, and begin to wonder what English Christians called themselves before that time. Dictionaries are sophisticated references, and one must understand how the one you are using is edited before drawing conclusions.
The etymology of Christian is rather straightforward. It comes from the Greek proper noun use of the Greek adjective χρῑστός (christos) meaning anointed. The Greek is a translation of the Hebrew māshia, meaning messiah or anointed one. So Jesus Christ literally means Jesus the Messiah. The Greek was borrowed into Latin, Christianus, from which English took this particular form of word in the mid-sixteenth century.
But Christian is not the oldest form of the word in English. The form christen is much older, found in Old English and coming from a common Germanic root that also was borrowed from the Latin. Christen was in use by the end of the ninth century, but is probably several centuries older, just not recorded in the extant Old English manuscripts. And christen was still in use as late as the seventeenth century. Shakespeare, writing when both forms were common, uses both: in The Merchant of Venice he refers to “Christian husbands” (4.1.292) and in Henry IV Part 1 he refers to “christen names” (2.5.8).
So English borrowed the Latin word twice. Once back in the mists of time before the language was written down, that is christen. And it was borrowed again in the sixteenth century, that is Christian.
The sixteenth century, the height of the Renaissance, saw not only a return to the scholarship of antiquity, but it also saw the borrowing of words from Latin. Christian is one of those. And not only did writers of that era borrow Latin words, they also changed existing ones to conform to the original Latin roots. In this case, they didn’t change christen, but adopted an alternative form that was closer to the Latin original and which ended up driving the older christen out of the language.
The problem comes when people simply look up Christian in the OED. That dictionary’s second edition has two separate entries for the word, one for Christian and one for christen. The OED editors when the entries were written, which was 1889, considered them to be separate words since they had different forms and were borrowed at different times. But if one does not know to look up christen as well, one will not get the entire history of the word and may come away with the mistaken idea that no form of the word existed prior to the 1550s. The OED’s etymology for Christian does contain a reference, and a link in the online version, to the older form, but this is easily missed. (And in the online version one has to click a “see more” link for the reference to christen appear, making it even easier to miss.)
Another issue, albeit one that does not affect much in this particular case, is the date of the OED entries. The OED is a massive work and it is updated piecemeal. In the case of both Christian and christen, the entries have not been touched since they were written some 125 years ago. In many cases, entries this old have been superseded by more recent scholarship. Antedates have been found, etymologies have been revised, and new meanings and forms have entered the language. When consulting the OED, one should always check the date the entry was last revised.
It remains to be seen what the editors will do with these entries in the third edition, which is currently being written and published piecemeal as entries are ready. Perhaps they will combine the entries, expanding the “Forms” section to give a more detailed history of the two different forms. Or perhaps they will keep them as separate entries, making the connection more obvious.
“Christ, n.,” “christen, adj. (and n.),” and “Christian, adj. and n.,” Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989.
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton