A Blessing in Blood

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The English words blessing and blood are closely related.

Old English blod came from P.Gmc *blodam, a word that in a still earlier form may have meant “to swell, gush, spurt,” or “that which bursts out.”

The English word blood has cognates in several other languages:

German: Blut
Dutch: bloed
Swedish: blod
Danish: blod
Norwegian: blod
Yiddish: blut

Old English bletsia, bledsian, bloedsian, meant “to consecrate, make holy, give thanks.” The P.Gmc form of the word was *blothisojan, “mark with blood.”

The word bless is unique to English.

Originally used for the act of sprinkling a pagan altar with blood, the word was adopted by Christian translators to render into English Latin benedicere and Greek eulogein which had been used to translate Hebrew brk, “to bend (the knee) in the act of worship.”

Towards the end of the OE period, bledsian took on the meaning “make happy” because of the word’s resemblance to OE bliðs, “bliss, merriment, happiness, grace, favor.” Bliss comes from a P.Gmc. word meaning “gentle, kind,” as does blithe.

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12 thoughts on “A Blessing in Blood”

  1. “Towards the end of the OE period, bledsian took on the meaning ‘make happy” because of the word’s resemblance to OE bliðs, “bliss, merriment, happiness, grace, favor.’”

    Always good for those of us who tend to resent the way word meanings shift to be reminded that it is not a new process. This was an interesting piece!

  2. Regarding “The word bless is unique to English”, surely all languages have quite a few unique words?

  3. Cecily, I think she meant that the other languages which use cognates for blood did not adapt that word to create a word meaning “bless” as well; agreed, there is no reason why they should be expected to have done so, but it would have been fascinating if they had. . .so it makes sense to mention that they didn’t.

  4. OK — I give up. What is “P.Gmc” ? I would hazard a guess that–it might be an abbreviation for Proto-Germanic, but why would a normal reader be expected to possess the knowledge of this abbreviation?

    Just as a thought to consider, Maeve (and this thought is tossed out supportively, not critically, as I thoroughly enjoy this blog and recommend it to my composition students regularly) — one of the blessings (!) of the Internet is that the few extra keystrokes to spell out an abbreviation costs nothing; the payback for readability is tremendous. By the time OE is used in this article, Old English has been used twice, so it isn’t difficult for someone to figure out. P.Gmac is left without information to gloss it. Both reading and interpretation speeds are increased by avoiding abbreviations (especially acronyms and similar constructions). It also avoids an in group/out group focus, helping make writing accessible emotionally to a wider range of readers as well.

    OK — teacher hat back off. Thanks for a great article! It makes me ponder anew the story of Jacob and Esau and wonder what exactly was intended by the “blessing” stolen by Jacob (if blessing is a unique word/concept in English).

  5. @Kathryn
    Yes, I meant no cognates in other languages.

    All you say is very true. It’s not much of an excuse, but I did spell out Proto-Germanic in my original draft. It may not seem so, but I go through numerous revisions on these posts. Sometimes things drop out.
    Thanks. I’m always grateful for helpful criticism.
    Btw, interesting question regarding Jacob and Esau.

  6. and in Finnish ‘veri’. You pronounce it almost like ‘very’ in English.
    v and r are very strong and “dry” but otherwise the same… 🙂

  7. Fascinating. If a word is going to morph, I like that it went in a good direction!

    I’ve never heard that bliss meant gentle, kind. That one’s new to me. I always think of bliss as a joyful rapture — extreme happiness. Just thinking out loud.

    The title caught me off guard but it worked! 🙂

  8. Fascinating indeed! Actually, knowing this, the scriptures make perfect sense, together with Jacob and Esau, in that Esau despised his birthright, which was to be in the bloodline of the Messiah (Galatians 3:16 “Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ.”).

    Moreover, Christ shed his blood to cleanse us all from Sin, reconciling us thereby to God the Father, to those who believe (Romans 5:10 “For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life.”).

    Thank you for this great affirmation.

  9. @Pearl: Surely the Bible was written before the English language existed, i.e. before there was the apparently unique etymology of “blessing” from “blood”?

  10. Of course! Does that make null and void my observation? Perhaps the origin goes back even further….you’re the expert here. I merely saw the parallels.

  11. @Pearl: I’m not claiming expertise, but am just interested in your train of thought. If you see parallels that are helpful to you, that’s fine by me.

  12. Okay, let’s get this straight. The word “bless,” known only to the English language, derives from “the act of sprinkling a pagan altar with blood”, and everybody is just fine with that??? In the English context, we are probably talking about Celtic or Druid altars, which are known to have been the site of human sacrifices. What part of human sacrifice are we invoking when we “bless” someone?

    Whatever ancient Near Eastern meaning of Jesus’ sacrifice you want to invoke, I guarantee you the overlap with English pagan sacrifices is random at best–there’s just no way to prettify the Christianization of human sacrifice. And we use this word–“bless”– every day!!!!

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