In a Word: The Gospel Truth

This is how the Gospels became the Gospels.


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Senior managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

Calque is a good word to know when you’re digging into word histories. Also called a loan translation, a calque (from a French word meaning “copy”) is a word or phrase in one language that is the result of a literal word-for-word or root-for-root translation of a word or phrase with the same meaning in another language.

Sometimes we borrow a foreign word directly into English with no or very little change to it, like the word parka, for example, from the Nenet people of Arctic Russia. Sometimes the word gets a bit more anglicized, whether by reasoned choice or, more often, just through natural evolution of the language — the word curfew, for instance, evolved in English from the Old French cuevrefeu.

But sometimes a language will have a word or phrase that, for whatever reason, we won’t usher directly into the language. Instead, we’ll keep the sense of it but simply translate all the linguistic bits into English words. Flea market is a good example: Paris is home to the largest secondhand and antiques market in the world, and it has been operating for more than 150 years. Because of the volume of secondhand furniture and clothing, it was referred to by some as the marché aux puces, literally “market with fleas.” What may have started as a derisive nickname was embraced (and it’s still called that today).

At the beginning of the 20th century, English speakers translated the phrase literally and started to use flea market to describe their own open-air market for secondhand items and antiques. Thus, flea market is a calque.

The name for the first four books of the New Testament is another example of a calque — two of them, actually. It begins with the language that the Gospels were thought to have been first written in: Greek. These stories of the life and death of Jesus are, in Greek, called euangelion — which is at the root of the Modern English evangelism. The word combines the prefix eu- “good” and a form of angelos “messenger.” Euangelion is literally “the good message.”

When the Church adopted Latin as its language of record, euangelion became evangelium in some places, but in others, the individual Greek parts of euangelion were translated into Latin counterparts — that is, they were calqued: eu- “good” became bona and -angelion “message” became adnuntiatio (an ancestor of the Modern English announcement). Like euangelion, the parts of bona adnuntiatio break down to “good message.”

And the Latin phrase was then calqued in English: Latin bona became Old English gōd, and adnuntiatio became spell. In Old English, the word spell could refer to a story in prose (that is, not in verse), a sermon, general discourse, or — in its earliest uses — simply an utterance or statement. (I think it says something about the power of language that spell later came to be associated with magic and witchcraft.) Thus, those books of the New Testament were called the gōdspell, “good message.”

Notice that line over the o; that signifies that it was pronounced with a long o — it’s the precursor of the Modern English word good and is pronounced the same. But because gōdspell was a religious word, the first syllable was often misinterpreted as a reference to God, and so the vowel was shortened over time, and what was “good” was pronounced more and more as “god” (and making it an early example of an eggcorn).

Rather suddenly, and for reasons that aren’t clear, the d was dropped almost everywhere the word was written at the end of the 13th century and onward. Later — after the etymological connections were obscured — the spelling was simplified further by eliminating the second l. Today, that “good spell” has been condensed to the Gospels. But it’s still, at its heart, the “good message” or “good news.”

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