Today marks a month of giving thanks, another milestone, rather a significant one for me. After 30 days of daily thank-you notes, I am pondering the origin of a few words I use in everyday life to express my feelings of gratitude. Thank you in English, danke in German, merci in French, Dios ti agngina in Ilocano, arigato in Japanese, salamat in Tagalog, and gracias in Spanish. This post is going to be rather full of words in different languages and their origins or etymology, and I do beg your kind and gracious indulgence for this little lesson in linguistics. Words and how they come about are one of my interests and I hope you will find the following of interest too.
Old English þancian [probably pronounced ‘thankian’], meaning “to give thanks,” shares with German (danke), Dutch, and other Northern European relatives a common theoretical basis. Linguists assume this to be the Proto Indo-European root word *tong-, meaning “to think, to feel.” (Please note I said “theoretical” as there is no solid evidence that there did exist such a language as “Indo-European.”) By around the year 1000, the Old English word þanc had come to mean “good thoughts, gratitude.”
The Old French mercit or merci comes from the Latin and shares a common origin with the words for “mercy” and, interestingly, “merchandise.” In the 9th century, merci meant “gift, reward, kindness, grace, pity.” And 300 years later, merci had evolved to mean “God’s forgiveness.”
The Japanese arigato has its origin in arigatashi, from the words “difficulty or hardness (katashi)” and “existence, to be” (ari). Thus, something that was difficult to have or to do, a valuable action or rare event. In Nichiren Buddhism, arigatashi is interpreted as a deep feeling for the mercy and generosity of Bodhisattvas.
I find it remarkable that these three languages have certain commonalities in the concepts or feelings within these three expressions. Good thoughts or feelings of gratitude in English are linked with deep feelings for mercy and generosity in Japanese. The French reward or gift is similarly linked to the idea of something valuable, something difficult to come by in Japanese. The Ilocano Dios ti agngina, which literally means God will value also has “recompense, reward” in its meaning, as have the French and Japanese expressions.
I now turn to the word grace, which around the year 1200 meant “to thank,” from the Old French. (By the way, grace à is still used in modern French to mean “thanks to”). “Divine grace, favour, mercy, virtue, good will, pleasing quality, elegance, esteem” – all these are expressed in this single word. Its ancient roots are Latin gratia (thus Spanish gracia). And again according to linguists, its Ur-ancestor is the theoretical Proto-Indo-European root word *gwere- which means “to favour.”
A Sanskrit relative of *gwere- is the word grnati which apparently means “praises, sings.” This brings us to the word we now use in English for the short prayer before meals – “grace.” We understand “grace” to refer to the gratitude we feel for the food we are about to receive. Until the 16th century, the word was used in the plural — “graces. ” The Spanish “thank you,” retains this plural form — gracias.
The Tagalog word for “thank you,” salamat, alone of all these expressions has its origin in Semitic languages. The word for “peace” in Arabic is salaam, and in Hebrew, shalom. However, we now come full circle since we can link the concept of peace to the Latin gratia, one of whose multiple meanings is that of “good will.”
Speaking of grace, my name, Jeanne, means “God is gracious,” from the Hebrew “Io”(God) and “chen or khen” (grace). Thus, Johanna or Yohanna. The names Jean, Joan, John, Jane share the same origin.
Today I give my thanks to you for reading and keeping me company through my grace journey. I wish you all — you and your family and all your loved ones — grace and goodwill. Above all, I wish you and our one and only world, and thus all the more valuable and irreplaceable — peace.
I leave you with a peaceful and gracious scene from Crete.
I also thank my etymological sources: http://www.etymonline.com/; http://www.accessj.com/2014/05/etymology-of-arigato.html. Any errors of misinterpretation from these sources are mine.