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shameless pleading

Good, God, Evil and Devil

… and welcome to Theological Wheel of Fortune!

Dear Word Detective: A recent piece on the website of the UK’s Telegraph newspaper concluded with this sentence: “If you start dwelling on the fact that you only have to add a ‘d’ to evil to get devil, you soon notice that by taking an ‘o’ away from good, you end up with God.” So what about it — is there any etymological connection between the words “good” and “God”? Or, for that matter, between the words “evil” and “devil”? — Dan Schwartz.

That’s a nifty question, and I especially like your the subject line of your email, “Good God and that evil Devil.” As for the sentence you quote, it reminds me of the sort of thing one sees on the illuminated signs out in front of the churches around here, though I doubt that they’d go for one that long (or that theologically inconclusive). They tend to prefer the short and cutesy, such as “Hell is Un-Cool” or “God Answers Knee-Mail.”

Humans are, of course, pattern-seeking creatures, so an orthographic resemblance between two words tends to jump out at us. (“Orthography” is a fancy word for the spelling, etc., of words.) But the fact that I can’t seem to tell Brad Pitt and Matt Damon apart doesn’t make them brothers, and most resemblances of one word to another are meaningless. All of which is a roundabout way of saying that there is no connection between any of the four words in question.

Although the word “God,” capitalized, is the proper name of the deity of Christianity, we’ll tackle “god” in the generic sense. The English word “god,” which first appeared in Old English, is probably based on the Indo-European root “ghut,” which meant “called or invoked,” giving “god” the sense of “that which is invoked or summoned.” It’s also possible, however, that the root involved was actually “gheu,” meaning “to pour, to offer a sacrifice,” giving us the sense of “one to whom sacrifices or libations are offered.”

Ironically, given your question, the form our modern English adjective and noun “good” took in Old English was the spelling “god” (although it was pronounced with a long “o”). But there is, again, no connection there and the root of “good”is the ancient Germanic “gath,” meaning “to bring together” (and also the root of “gather” and “together”). This root progressed through the senses of “united” to “fitting, suitable,” to “pleasing, satisfactory” to all the various meanings of “good” today.

The interesting thing about “evil” is that it wasn’t so bad when it was young. In fact, the root of “evil,” the Indo-European “upelo,” meant merely “exceeding proper bounds” or “uppity.” Even in Old English, “evil” was used as a fairly bland, general-purpose negative word, encompassing very nasty things or behavior but also applied where today we would probably just use “bad,” “defective” or “unpleasant.” The use of “evil” to mean exclusively “extreme moral depravity or wickedness” only arose in the 19th century.

“Devil” arrived in Old English as “deofol,” meaning “spirit of evil,” drawn from the Greek word “diabolos,” which also gave us “diabolical.” The Greek “diabolos” literally meant “slanderer” or “liar,” being a combination of “dia” (across) and “ballein” (to throw, which also gave us “ballistic”), with the sense of “throwing lies” or attacking by other means. When capitalized, “Devil” is today used to mean Satan, of course, but “devil” is also used in a variety of other senses ranging from “demon” to “charming rogue” (“A man of great talents, who knew a good deal … and was a devil to play,” Thackeray, 1849) to “luckless schmuck” (“Why should he do anything..for a poor devil like me?”, 1876).

5 comments to Good, God, Evil and Devil

  • Ajj Romine

    Interesting. I think of this often, but never really felt like doing the detective work on finding out. I thought it was just irony that these words seemed to fit so well… but it seems that we have taken these words and made them fit so well together. Especially since the word ‘devil’ was mainly a benign word for dislike, unpleasant, etc etc.

    Thanks Again. I love your site!
    Ajj Romine

  • Lambert Lorette

    Thanks so much. Good knowledge, well put. Subhi said once, “If you want to be spiritual, you have to go beyond words”. I find that to be true, and as you said, lots of this particular focus (in this article’s question) is on orthographic resemblance…I continue to be interested in the word evil, because it just doesn’t seem to mean anything that you can relate to. What does it mean? That is, when you say good, you generally know what you are talking about; it makes sense. But “evil” doesn’t make any sense…it’s a strange word. I looked it up all over the place, and finally felt satisfied when I found it meant harmful (unfortunately I can’t remember where I ran across that source derivative of the word). When I say, or, I think, when anybody says “harmful”, then we all know what we are talking about, and we can agree or disagree about whether something is harmful, because we know what we are talking about, but when you say “evil”, it’s like something you can’t really understand, some mystical word – so, your explanation brought real relief to me. From what you are saying, the original meaning, “exceeding proper bounds”, or deviating from what is considered to be normal healthy behavior, is something a person can relate to, whereas the use of the word today is some sort of political abuse of the original word, for purposes of shock and awe I suppose…in other words, using the word for it’s extreme meaning..which is of course, in itself evil, in the original sense, that is, exceeds the proper bounds of it’s original meaning. So… the truth is, evil, as it used today, has no real meaning, and is just a perversion of (for effect), saying simply that “something is wrong.” There is also a real mischief in the word, because it inevitably implies that a person was intentionally, knowingly, doing something that they knew was not right, (thus spontaneously creating a group of really terrible people through hearsay), but what I have heard (Subhi) is that man never does that, but always thinks, no matter how much in error, that what he is doing is right.

  • tracy elias

    the simularities of positive and negitive, good and evil,even yes and no,in translation of many origans,have uses of the vocabulary that rechior less effort to state the positive.the simularities in pronunciation of yes and no,also needs concideration

  • tracy elias

    alien and angel (1 letter)

  • robert brasher

    evil is live backwards, as in suppressive to life…angel and angle connected… gather and ghut are connected …god being plural originally … gather as one… at one ment… I would say good is connected to god, gawd …giddy means possessed by god…or oneness perhaps….gathering others into that godspell oneness..gospels giddy spells??? gid? good? angels approach or create reality , come fiction, from a different angle???

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