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This Is Where the Word 'Easter' Comes From

Apr 15, 2017

Why do we use the word Easter to describe the spring's eggiest holiday? There's more than one theory, but the most interesting intertwines with the tale of a monk known as the Venerable Bede.

A learned man in literature and astrology, Bede worked to improve souls in 7th-century England. The scholar also did a lot of writing, and while he covered topics from spelling to science, he spilled a lot of ink on the question of which day was the right one to celebrate Easter — a contentious topic back in his day.

Should it coincide with the older Jewish celebration of Passover, as some early Christians said it should, meaning it could fall on different days of the week depending on the Jewish calendar? Or must it be on a Sunday, the historic day of Jesus' resurrection, as other Christians decreed? Which calendar should be used? Catholics said it should be after the spring equinox, but when is the spring equinox anyway? (The calculation that's been generally settled on today is still complicated.)

Tucked away in Bede's lengthy analysis is the origin story, just a few lines suggesting what inspired the name of the holiday: a goddess named Eostre, who represents spring and fertility. Pagans had celebrated her in a month that became known as Eosturmonath in Old English, he wrote, which corresponds to what we now call April. And so people started "calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honored name of the old observance."

It's a tidy tale, especially since other Easter trappings have similar associations. "The eggs and the bunnies, those are fertility things," as linguist Gretchen McCulloch points out. Other Christian holiday words have pagan roots, too, like yule and yuletide, which come from the name of an ancient midwinter festival.

But language experts are also quick to say that, so far as they know, no other historical source confirms Bede's account of the word's evolution. "Easter is a very old word. It goes back to the earliest varieties of Old English," says Cliff Sofield, a lexicographer for the Oxford English Dictionary. And it's hard to know the nitty-gritty details about how any word came to be, especially one people started uttering a millennium ago.

Another theory is that the English word Easter comes from an older German word for east, which comes from an even older Latin word for dawn. In spring, dawns mark the beginning of days that will outlast the nights, and those dawns erupt in the east. So that tale is tidy, too. As Merriam-Webster Editor-at-Large Peter Sokolowski sums it up in an email, " The basic logic seems to have been: 'Spring > sun > dawn > east.'"

Many European languages, like French, have words for Easter that come directly from the Hebrew word for Passover, the springtime holiday that commemorates the Jewish people's freedom from slavery in Egypt. Though English didn't go that route, there are still vestiges of the word for Passover in Easter-time things like paschal candles.

Though it has fallen out of use, the word easter has also been used as a totally secular verb meaning "to turn or move to the east." Easter can also be used as an adjective to describe things that lie toward or nearest to the east. The Italian poet Ludovico Ariosto used the latter version in a line people might want to co-opt for any holiday toasts they're giving. "The dawning brake," he wrote 500 years ago, "and all the e aster parts were full of light."

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