God (word)

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Earliest attestation of the Germanic word in the 6th-century Codex Argenteus (Mt 5:34)

The English word god comes from the Old English god, which itself is derived from the Proto-Germanic *ǥuđán. Its cognates in other Germanic languages include guþ, gudis (both Gothic), guð (Old Norse), god (Old Saxon, Old Frisian, and Old Dutch), and got (Old High German).


The Proto-Germanic meaning of *ǥuđán and its etymology is uncertain. It is generally agreed that it derives from a Proto-Indo-European neuter passive perfect participle *ǵʰu-tó-m. This form within (late) Proto-Indo-European itself was possibly ambiguous, and thought to derive from a root *ǵʰeu̯- "to pour, libate" (the idea survives in the Dutch word, 'Giet', meaning, to pour) (Sanskrit huta, see hotṛ), or from a root *ǵʰau̯- (*ǵʰeu̯h2-) "to call, to invoke" (Sanskrit hūta). Sanskrit hutá = "having been sacrificed", from the verb root hu = "sacrifice", but a slight shift in translation gives the meaning "one to whom sacrifices are made."

Depending on which possibility is preferred, the pre-Christian meaning of the Germanic term may either have been (in the "pouring" case) "libation" or "that which is libated upon, idol" — or, as Watkins[1] opines in the light of Greek χυτη γαια "poured earth" meaning "tumulus", "the Germanic form may have referred in the first instance to the spirit immanent in a burial mound" — or (in the "invoke" case) "invocation, prayer" (compare the meanings of Sanskrit brahman) or "that which is invoked".


A significant number of scholars have connected this root with the names of three related Germanic tribes: the Geats, the Goths and the Gutar. These names may be derived from an eponymous chieftain Gaut, who was subsequently deified.[citation needed] He also sometimes appears in early Medieval sagas as a name of Odin or one of his descendants, a former king of the Geats (Gaut(i)), an ancestor of the Gutar (Guti), of the Goths (Gothus) and of the royal line of Wessex (Geats) and as a previous hero of the Goths (Gapt).


Some variant forms of the name Odin such as the Lombardic Godan may point in the direction that the Lombardic form actually comes from Proto-Germanic *ǥuđánaz. Wōdanaz or Wōđinaz is the reconstructed Proto-Germanic name of a god of Germanic paganism, known as Odin in Norse mythology, Wōden in Old English, Wodan or Wotan in Old High German and Godan in the Lombardic language. Godan was shortened to God over time and was adopted/retained by the Germanic peoples of the British isles as the name of their deity, in lieu of the Latin word Deus used by the Latin speaking Christian church, after conversion to Christianity.

During the complex christianization of the Germanic tribes of Europe, there were many linguistic influences upon the Christian missionaries. One example post downfall of the western Roman Empire are the missionaries from Rome led by Augustine of Canterbury. Augustine's mission to the Saxons in southern Britain was conducted at a time when the city of Rome was a part of a Lombardic kingdom. The translated Bibles which they brought on their mission were greatly influenced by the Germanic tribes they were in contact with, chief among them being the Lombards and Franks. The translation for the word deus of the Latin Bible was influenced by the then current usage by the tribes for their highest deity, namely Wodan by Angles, Saxons, and Franks of north-central and western Europe, and Godan by the Lombards of south-central Europe around Rome. There are many instances where the name Godan and Wodan are contracted to God and Wod.[2] One instance is the wild hunt (a.k.a. Wodan's wild hunt) where Wod is used.[3][4]

The earliest uses of the word God in Germanic writing is often cited to be in the Gothic Bible or Wulfila Bible, which is the Christian Bible as translated by Ulfilas into the Gothic language spoken by the Eastern Germanic, or Gothic, tribes. The oldest parts of the Gothic Bible, contained in the Codex Argenteus, are estimated to be from the fourth century. During the fourth century, the Goths were converted to Christianity, largely through the efforts of Bishop Ulfilas, who translated the Bible into the Gothic language in Nicopolis ad Istrum in today's northern Bulgaria. The words guda and guþ were used for God in the Gothic Bible.

Influence of Christianity[edit]

God entered English when the language still had a system of grammatical gender. The word and its cognates were initially neuter but underwent transition when their speakers converted to Christianity, "as a means of distinguishing the personal God of the Christians from the impersonal divine powers acknowledged by pagans."[5]: 15  However, traces of the neuter endured. While these words became syntactically masculine, so that determiners and adjectives connected to them took masculine endings, they sometimes remained morphologically neuter, which could be seen in their inflections: In the phrase, guþ meins, "my God," from the Gothic Bible, for example, guþ inflects as if it were still a neuter because it lacks a final -s, but the possessive adjective meins takes the final -s that it would with other masculine nouns.[5]: 15 

God and its cognates likely had a general, predominantly plural or collective sense prior to conversion to Christianity. After conversion, the word was commonly used in the singular to refer to the Christian deity, and also took on characteristics of a name.[5]: 15–16 [6]


The word god was used to represent Greek theos and Latin deus in Bible translations, first in the Gothic translation of the New Testament by Ulfilas. For the etymology of deus, see *dyēus.

Greek "θεός " (theos) means god in English. It is often connected with Greek "θέω" (theō), "run",[7][8] and "θεωρέω" (theoreō), "to look at, to see, to observe",[9][10] Latin feriae "holidays", fanum "temple", and also Armenian di-k` "gods". Alternative suggestions (e.g. by De Saussure) connect *dhu̯es- "smoke, spirit", attested in Baltic and Germanic words for "spook" and ultimately cognate with Latin fumus "smoke." The earliest attested form of the word is the Mycenaean Greek te-o[11] (plural te-o-i[12]), written in Linear B syllabic script.


KJV of 1611 (Psalms 23:1,2): Occurrence of "LORD" (and "God" in the heading)

The development of English orthography was dominated by Christian texts. Capitalized, "God" was first used to refer to the Abrahamic God and may now signify any monotheistic conception of God, including the translations of the Arabic Allāh, Persian Khuda, Indic Ishvara and the Maasai Ngai.

In the English language, capitalization is used for names by which a god is known, including 'God'. Consequently, its capitalized form is not used for multiple gods or when referring to the generic idea of a deity.[13][14]

Pronouns referring to a god are also often capitalized by adherents to a religion as an indication of reverence, and are traditionally in the masculine gender ("He", "Him", "His" etc) unless specifically referring to a goddess.[15][16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Watkins, Calvert, ed., The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, 2nd ed., Houghton Mifflin Co., 2000.
  2. ^ A New System of Geography, Or a General Description of the World by Daniel Fenning, Joseph Collyer 1765
  3. ^ See the chant in the Medieval and Early Modern folklore section of the Wikipedia entry for Wōden.
  4. ^ Northern Mythology, Comprising the Principal Popular Traditions and Superstitions of Scandinavia, North Germany and the Netherlands: Compiled from Original and Other Sources. In Three Volumes. North German and Netherlandish Popular Traditions and Superstitions, Volume 3, 1852
  5. ^ a b c Green, D. H. (1998). Language and History in the Early Germanic World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521794237.
  6. ^ "god". Oxford English Dictionary (Online ed.). Oxford University Press. (Subscription or participating institution membership required.)
  7. ^ Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus
  8. ^ Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus
  9. ^ θεωρέω, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus
  10. ^ Dermot Moran, The Philosophy of John Scottus Eriugena: A Study of Idealism in the Middle Ages, Cambridge University Press
  11. ^ Palaeolexicon, Word study tool of ancient languages
  12. ^ Palaeolexicon, Word study tool of ancient languages
  13. ^ Webster's New World Dictionary; "God n. ME < OE, akin to Ger gott, Goth guth, prob. < IE base * ĝhau-, to call out to, invoke > Sans havaté, (he) calls upon; 1. any of various beings conceived of as supernatural, immortal, and having special powers over the lives and affairs of people and the course of nature; deity, esp. a male deity: typically considered objects of worship; 2. an image that is worshiped; idol 3. a person or thing deified or excessively honored and admired; 4. [G-] in monotheistic religions, the creator and ruler of the universe, regarded as eternal, infinite, all-powerful, and all-knowing; Supreme Being; the Almighty"
  14. ^ Dictionary.com; "God /gɒd/ noun: 1. the one Supreme Being, the creator and ruler of the universe. 2. the Supreme Being considered with reference to a particular attribute. 3. (lowercase) one of several deities, esp. a male deity, presiding over some portion of worldly affairs. 4. (often lowercase) a supreme being according to some particular conception: the God of mercy. 5. Christian Science. the Supreme Being, understood as Life, Truth, Love, Mind, Soul, Spirit, Principle. 6. (lowercase) an image of a deity; an idol. 7. (lowercase) any deified person or object. 8. (often lowercase) Gods, Theater. 8a. the upper balcony in a theater. 8b. the spectators in this part of the balcony."
  15. ^ The New York Times Guide to Essential Knowledge. The New York Times. 25 October 2011. ISBN 9780312643027. Retrieved 27 December 2011. Pronoun references to a deity worshiped by people in the present are sometimes capitalized, although some writers use capitals only to prevent confusion: God helped Abraham carry out His law.
  16. ^ Alcoholic Thinking: language, culture, and belief in Alcoholics Anonymous. Greenwood Publishing Group. 1998. ISBN 9780275960490. Retrieved 27 December 2011. Traditional biblical translations that always capitalize the word "God" and the pronouns, "He," "Him," and "His" in reference to God itself and the use of archaic forms such as "Thee," "Thou," and "Thy" are familiar.

External links[edit]