Word Odyssey: Hallelujah! The Origins of “God”

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Hallelujah! Today’s Word Odyssey topic is the origins of God. Well, not really the origins of God, but rather the word God. But even that is a complicated matter.

Let’s start with hallelujah. That means praise be to Yahweh, from Hebrew “hillel”, which is a song of praise, and Yahweh, the name of the god of the Israelites.

In the Old Testament book of Isaiah, Yahweh declares: "I am Yahweh, that is My name." Most of the time, Yahweh refers to the Hebrews’ own tribal god, not the god of everyone. He makes his status as numero uno in the pantheon of gods clear in the very first Commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.” Due the various ways of translating and alphabetizing Hebrew, Yahweh is sometimes rendered as Jehovah, such as in the King James version of the Bible. But they’re the same Dude.
Early English translations of the Old Testament also frequently use Elohim to refer to God. But Elohim sometimes refers generically to the gods, like the gods of Egypt, yet sometimes substitutes for Yahweh.

You won’t find Yahweh, Jehovah or Elohim in modern English versions of the Bible. Yahweh and Jehovah have been scrubbed—not because of some diabolical scheme, but because of the sacred tetragrammaton. The what?! Because written Hebrew doesn’t use vowels, in Hebrew Yahweh is rendered as a four (tetra) letter (grammaton) word: YHWH. Yahweh (and, thus, Jehovah) eventually became regarded by Jews as too sacred to say, except on special occasions. In deference, later English Bible translations substituted “Lord” or “God”. For clarity (and consistency), Elohim is also now rendered as God or gods.

Allah is the Muslim word for God. But it’s also the word used by Arab Christians and Arab Jews to refer to God. That’s because the origin of Allah is Arabic. Before Mohammed, Arabs were polytheistic and allah referred to one of the gods, the Creator. When Mohammed founded Islam, Allah became the term for the one, all-powerful Supreme Being. The polytheistic origins, however, are still seen in the Islamic tradition that Allah has 99 names, each describing a different character trait.

If Allah sounds similar to Elohim, that’s not an accident. Al and El are the Arabic and Hebrew words for “the”. The Arabic root Ilah and the Hebrew root of Elohim are likely related. Adding “the” at the beginning is critical, because there is a world of difference between A god and THE God.

Now how about the word God itself? My book on Word Histories says it derives from a Germanic word meaning “sky-dweller.” But more reliable sources insist that it derives from a proto-Germanic word “gudo”, meaning to call or to invoke or to be worshipped. There’s reasonable conjecture that this word can be traced back to the proto-Indo-European language.

It’s interesting that as a Germanic word, “gudo” and “god” were gender-neutral. It became masculine under the influence of Christianity. God first appears capitalized in a Gothic translation of the Bible.

To be possessed by God was “gudigaz.” This evolved in Old English to “gidig”, while acquiring the connotation of possessed by God in a crazy way—that is, to be gidig meant you were mad as a hatter. By Middle English the meaning evolved so that it was used simply to describe someone who was foolish in a dizzy kind of way. That is, you are giddy, like a school girl with a crush.

We say the word God many times every day, usually without thinking about it. Once upon a time in English, it was fitting to bid farewell by saying “God be with ye”. As happens in language all the time, people shorten these kinds of phrases, so “God be with ye” was contracted to a simple goodbye. It’s not just English speakers that do this. The French bid “adieu” and the Spanish say “adios”, both of which are literally “to God”, which are shortened ways of commending the person to go with God.

Vaya con Dios!

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