Good Words For Good Friday

This Good Friday we take a look at some of the words associated with Easter and Lent. There are a lot of good, old words in the names of various holidays of this season that survive as relics from the language of yore.

The period preceding Easter on the church calendar is Lent. It’s a period of fasting and penitence that encompasses the 40 weekdays from Ash Wednesday to Easter. Lent, or as it was known earlier, Lenten, is from the Old English lencten, which was the name of the season we now call spring. Lencten dates to around 1000 with the religious sense appearing around 1290. Today, only the religious sense survives.

In the days immediately preceding Lent, we celebrate Carnival, a period of wild partying before the deprivations of Lent are imposed. The word dates to 1549 and is from the Italian carnevale, and ultimately from the Latin carnem levare, or the putting away of meat, a reference to the abstention from meat during the subsequent weeks. By 1598, the term had extended to include any period of feasting or revelry. The sense of a fair or circus is American and quite recent, dating to only 1931.

The last day of Carnival is Mardi Gras, which is from the French and literally means fatty or greasy Tuesday, a reference to meat eaten on this day. Its use in English dates to 1699. Its calque is Fat Tuesday.

Another, more pious, name for the day is Shrove Tuesday. This comes from shrive, meaning to impose penance and often extended to include confession and absolution. Shrove is from the Old English scrífan and dates to before 776

Following the riotous celebrations of Mardi Gras, we have Ash Wednesday, a term that dates to 1297. The name comes from the Roman Catholic custom of anointing the heads of penitents with ashes on this day. Ash is from the Old English asce, a word that has cognates in many Germanic languages.

At the other end of Lent we have Holy Week, which begins with Palm Sunday, which commemorates Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. On that day crowds laid a path of palms at his feet. The name Palm Sunday also extends back to Old English, palmsunnandæg. In addition to laying palm branches at his feet, the crowds also shouted hosanna, a term from Hebrew that appears in Hebrew liturgy and is used as an appeal for deliverance or salvation. So, by shouting hosanna, the crowds were recognizing Christ as the Messiah.

The Thursday of Holy Week is known as Maundy Thursday, and on this day Christ’s Last Supper and betrayal in the Garden of Gethsemane are commemorated. Maundy, an odd word to the modern ear, dates to 1325 and is from the Anglo-Norman mandet, and ultimately from the Latin mandatum or mandate. This is shortened from mandatum novum or new commandment. The Maundy ceremony is a ritual of washing the feet of the poor by royals or clergy and the attendant distribution of alms. The ritual commemorates Christ’s washing of the disciples’ feet prior to the Last Supper.

The next day is Good Friday, which has been called that since around 1290. Since this day is the commemoration of Christ’s crucifixion, some ask why it is called good. The good in the name is from a specific usage of that word to denote holy in the names of dates. Good Friday is the only day the Roman Catholic church does not celebrate Mass, although the Eucharist can be administered if it was blessed the day before.

Finally, we come to Easter, the celebration of Christ’s resurrection. The word is from the Old English éastre and dates to around 890. Ironically for this most holy of Christian holidays, the name comes from Eostre, a pagan goddess of the dawn, whose festival fell on the vernal equinox.

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