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).

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