We use it all the time. We whisper it. We curse it. We sing it. It’s part of our basest slang and our most sacred expressions. But where does the English word “god” actually come from?
The other languages I am familiar with all have a Latin base. The word for “god” in Latin languages comes, originally, from “zeus”. It survives in English in terms like deism or theology.
I’ll cover the Latin roots in a follow-up post, but the roots of “god” are not Latin, but rather an ancient Germanic language. Many of English’s most basic words come from this source: man, woman, child, hunger, thirst, sun, death, birth, and water all have nothing to do with parlance of Rome. The word we use for the One we worship is no exception.
So let’s take a look at where we get the word for “god”.
Before “god”, says the linguists who study Proto-Germanic (the theoretical, reconstructed root of all modern Germanic languages), we had the word “ghutan,” which was used in the sense of “supreme being.” But that word had an even older root (ghut), which in turn had an even older root: “gheu”. And “gheu” once upon a time meant “to call, to invoke.”
So when our ancestors spoke of god, they meant not merely a spiritual being, but one on whom they called. One with whom they could interact. A relational Person. God was “the one to whom we call.”
I like this—very much.
Because regardless of our personal theologies, we all do this. In the foxholes of our daily lives, we invoke the help of a Being we may say we don’t believe in. How many atheists have been forlorn to hear themselves cry out, “God, please!” in the moment of their personal distress?
It’s as is we cannot help ourselves. Because at some level beneath reason and will, we poke our fingers through our measurable, material surroundings in search of the spiritual we instinctively know to underlie it.
Scientific studies sometimes bump up against this phenomenon. http://www.cnn.com/2007/HEALTH/04/04/neurotheology/
One of the scientists quoted in the above article explains at length how the human experience of “god” is an evolutionary adaptation, an almost universal response to the pressures of sentient, rational existence.
But what if it’s the other way around? What if we call upon God because He designed us to call, and because He loves it when we do?
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