Good Friday

Good Friday is the day that Christians commemorate the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ, which leads many people to ask “what’s so ‘good’ about it?” That’s a fair question, and the answer is that good has been used to designate a number of religious holidays. In Old and Middle English, the adjective god (good) could mean ‘pious, devout, morally perfect,’ so the good in Good Friday is a linguistic relic meaning ‘holy.’

English isn’t the only language to use a word meaning ‘good’ in this way. There is the Dutch Goede Vrijdag, dating to at least 1240, and the German guter Freitag, dating to the same period. In Anglo-Norman, the dialect of French spoken in post-Conquest England, the day was called Bon Venderdy, attested to prior to 1321, and in fourteenth century Anglo-Latin it was bonus dies Veneris. (The Jewish holy days are also called yom tov, a Yiddish alteration of the Hebrew yom (day) + tob (good), but this term would appear to be part of a separate tradition, not appearing in English usage until the nineteenth century.)

But the earliest English use of good to refer to a religious holiday is older than these other languages, found in the Confessional and Penitential of Ecgbert, Archbishop of York. Ecgbert was an eighth century cleric, but the work is almost certainly falsely ascribed to him and written sometime later. It’s found in the manuscript Cambridge, Corpus Christi College 190, which was copied in the mid eleventh century. This penitential uses goden tide (good tide) to refer to Lent:

Þonne hafa þu rihtne geleafan to Gode & to þysse godan tide & geornne beo betende þæs þu wite þæt þu geworht hæbbe mid þinum fæstene & mid þinre ælmyssan & mid þinum gebedum þe þu betst cunne & ælce Sunnandæg to cyrcan cum & þær georne for þe sylfne gebide & for eall gefullod folc & for þinne scrift þonne byst þu on ure eallra gebedrædene.

(When you have a correct faith regarding God and regarding this good tide and are earnestly atoning for what you have thought and what you have done with your fast, and with your alms, and with your prayers that you know best, and come to church each Sunday, and there pray earnestly for yourself and for all baptized people, and because of your confession, then you shall be in the prayers of us all.)

(Some references define godan tide as ‘shrovetide,’ or the three days immediately preceding Lent, ending on Ash Wednesday, but the use of ælce Sunnandæg (every Sunday) here indicates a longer period, that of Lent itself.)

There is no record of the Anglo-Saxons using god to refer specifically to the day of the crucifixion. Instead, that day was referred to as langa frigadæg (long Friday), probably a reference to the fasting and long religious services held on the day. This usage disappeared in the early Middle English period, being replaced by Good Friday, which is attested to about the same time as its cognates appear in the other European languages. Good Friday appears in the South English Legendary, a collection of saints’ lives, written before 1300. The term quickly caught on and became the standard name for the holiday.

So Good Friday is ‘holy Friday,’ and we’ve been calling it that since the twelfth century, although the use of good to refer to holy days in general is even older.


Sources:

Dictionary of Old English A to G Online, University of Toronto, 2007, s. v. “god, adj.”

Ker, N. R., Catalogue of Manuscripts Containing Anglo-Saxon, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1957.

Middle English Dictionary, University of Michigan, 2001, s. v. “god (adj.).”

Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989, s. v. “long, adj.1 and n.”

Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, December 2014, s. v. “Good Friday, n.,” “good tide, n.”

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