Word roots and routes: Easter

Posted by on April 22, 2014

© CorbisNext in a series of posts exploring some of the ‘roots’ and ‘routes’ of English vocabulary.

The words Easter and east are related not only to each other, but also to orient, origin and aurora. This might surprise you, but the alternation between s and r in related words is quite common – think of was vs. were, for example. In this post I’ll say something about these words, plus the names of the other points of the compass, and finally something about an Easter custom and the bizarre effect it has on some people’s spelling.

Regardless of the language spoken by the people who watch it, the sun always rises in the east, and both the Germanic east and the Latinate Orient are derived from an Indo-European root meaning both ‘east’ and ‘rising’ or ‘dawn’. The Old English goddess of dawn was called Ēastre, and her festival was celebrated at the spring equinox. Through the Christian religion’s typical practice of reinventing heathen festivals for its own purposes, this celebration became what we know today as Easter. From Aurora, the Roman counterpart of  Ēastre, we have the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights.

From the Orient we have the adjective oriental (or Oriental). The verb to orient (with its derived noun orientation) originally meant to position something so that it faced towards the east.

Another cognate of orient is origin – also a kind of dawn or beginning.

The equivalent formal terms for ‘the west’ and ‘western’ are the Occident and occidental. Occident literally means ‘going down’, and refers to the part of the sky where the sun sets. The word west probably has a similar history.

The ancestor of the word north originally meant ‘on the left’, which would be the case for someone praying towards the rising sun. And south is probably related to ‘sun’; in the northern hemisphere, the sun is towards the south for most of the day.

Eggs, traditionally a symbol of fertility and rebirth, are closely associated with the celebration of Easter. Where I live now in Poland, the elaborate painting of eggs for Easter is still very much a living tradition, whereas in my upbringing in England, real eggs had been entirely supplanted by chocolate Easter eggs, and these were the main thing I looked forward to as Easter approached. Around Easter, eggs are also a popular basis for  creative etymology; here’s an eggzample, from the Yorkshire Evening Post newspaper (14.4.14):

Shopping centre’s eggs-tra special treat for shoppers
Crafty children can showcase their egg-cellent creative skills this Easter in Wakefield.
Youngsters are being urged to decorate two craft eggs to hang on a giant enchanted tree to dazzle shoppers at The Ridings Shopping Centre from Thursday.

Next in the series: river, stream, canal

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