Dear Word Detective: I am writing to you from the research department of a large magazine. We have a story that I am fact-checking in which the author states: “… a friend of mine told me that the origin of the word ‘forgive’ means to untie….” This kind of statement causes fact-checkers a lot of stress. Of course I am unable to verify this “fact” and am forced to go hunting on my own. Do you have any insight into the origin of the word “forgive?” — N. R.
Hmm. Odd. But this brings up a question of my own. I have always wondered how many layers, so to speak, fact-checkers are expected to plow through in search of “the truth.” In this case, for instance, you have an author who reports that a friend said that “forgive” originally meant “untie.” Let us presume that you verify that the author’s friend actually said that. So the statement by the author is true. You then have to worry whether the friend is right? Perhaps the friend read it in a book written by a fellow in Helsinki. Where do you stop? After all, if that open-ended approach were applied to the statements of politicians, newspapers would contain nothing but ads for lost pets.
In this case, being the helpful sort that I am, I can report that the author’s friend’s cousin’s landlord’s parrot, or whoever we’re talking about, is seriously misinformed. “Forgive” never meant “untie.” The root of “forgive” is the Latin word “perdonare,” meaning “to give completely, without reservation.” (That “perdonare” is also the source of our English “pardon.”)
When the Latin “perdonare” was adopted into the Germanic ancestor of English, it was translated piece-by-piece, making the result what linguists call a “calque” (from the French “calquer,” to trace or copy) a literal transliteration. “Per” was replaced by “for,” a prefix that in this case means “thoroughly,” and “donare” with “giefan” (“to give”). The result, “forgiefan,” appeared in Old English meaning “to give up, allow” as well as “to give in marriage.” In modern English, “forgive” has also taken on the meanings of “to pardon for an offense,” “renounce anger at” (“I forgive you for feeding bean tacos to my dog “) and “to abandon a claim on” (as in “forgive a debt”).
As to where your author’s friend’s “untie” theory might have come from, I catch a whiff of New Age psychobabble in that story. It’s easy to imagine some pop-happiness guru explaining that our anger and resentment are the “ties” that bind us, and that only by “forgiving” others can we be freed to chase butterflies through fields of daisies or whatever. Personally, I’ll believe it when I see it practiced by the IRS.