November 28, 2007

Thanksgiving: the Greek influence

Following up on our (already remarkably long) series on the stress pattern of thanksgiving, Kimberly Belcher writes:

I unfortunately don't have time to test this hypothesis at the moment (I think testing would start at Early English Books Online), but I suspect that the word "thanksgiving" started as a non-compositional technical term in English, that is, as a literal translation of Greek "eucharistia," eucharist. That would explain its limitation to "gratitude of a certain large-scale, ceremonial nature" and would tend to keep it quite distinct from "giving thanks." This is supported by the British, pre-holiday poems you cite, as they tend to have a doxological and even liturgical cast (notice the prevalence of rituals in the Joseph Beaumont excerpt, which would make me tend to think "Thanksgiving" there has a ritual meaning as well, i.e. eucharistic worship).

This translation into English (circumventing the loan-word "eucharist") may have been motivated by a desire, just before, during, and after the Reformation, to vernacularize Christian vocabulary. I have noticed a tendency in England in the 15-16th century, even among Catholics, to prefer vernacular translations in prayerbooks to Latin versions, even, in some cases, for prayers that the books' owners would undoubtedly have memorized in Latin. Expanding this observation to vernacularization generally would be an interesting research project which I might even do at some point.

The OED doesn't give this etymology, but it's true that the earliest citations given there are in appropriate contexts:

1533 TINDALE Supper of Lord Eivb, One or other Psalme or prayer of thankes giuyng in the mother tongue. 1539 BIBLE (Great) 1 Tim. iv. 4 For all the creatures of God are good, and nothing to be refused, yf it be receaued with thankesgeuynge. 1562 WINȜET Cert. Tract. iii. Wks. (S.T.S.) I. 29 Gyf sic zeirlie memorial in blythnes and thankisgeifing wes haldin.

1535 COVERDALE Ps. xxxix. [xl.] 3 He hath put a new songe in my mouth, euen a thankesgeuynge vnto oure God. 1552 Bk. Com. Prayer (heading), The Thankes geuing of Women after Childe birth.

And one later citation is given that makes the relationship explicit:

1708-22 J. BINGHAM XV. iii. (1845) 770 After this the priest went on with the εὐχαριστία properly so called, that is the great thanksgiving to God for all his mercies, both of creation, providence and redemption.

One small piece of contrary evidence is this use in Francis Bacon's The Wisdome of the Ancients (1609), where thanksgiving seems to mean simply "giving thanks" in a secular and individual sense:

There followes next a remarkable part of the parable, That men in steed of gratulation, and thanksgiuing, were angry, and expostulated the matter with Prometheus, insomuch that they accused both him and his inuention vnto Iupiter, which was so acceptable vnto him, that hee augmented their former commodities with a new bountie.

And EEBO similarly gives us a 1572 publication by Thomas Paynell, The moste excellent and pleasaunt booke, entituled: The treasurie of Amadis of Fraunce conteyning eloquente orations, pythie epistles, learned letters, and feruent complayntes, seruing for sundrie purposes. ... Translated out of Frenche into English, whose preface ("To the gentle Reader") ends like this:

Wherfore (gentle Reader) let it not lothe thée (I pray thée) to reade this fine and fruitfull booke, nor to ensue the honest and vertuous lessons, the prudent admonitions and good counsels of the same: for thou shalt not at any tyme (as I thinke) repent thée more for the reading of it, than I for the translating therof, the which although it be but rude and vnpleasant, yet my mynde and hand were neyther negligent nor slacke to profite thée, and to english it to thy consolation and comfort. Therfore receyue it, I pray thée, as it is, in good part and with thanksgiuing for my good will and paines taking, if thou estéeme it thankes wo.rthie, if not, amende it I beséeche thée, and I with all my heart shal thanke thée nowe and euer.

All the same, if thanksgiving was a "non-compositional technical term" from the beginning, that would give us a place to start in figuring out why its stress pattern seems from the beginning to have been different from that of other English compounds of the same form. But I can't think of any other examples of similar compounds with second-syllable stress, and it remains unclear when and how the American south and most of contemporary Britain ended up with first-syllable stress in this word.

Posted by Mark Liberman at November 28, 2007 08:15 AM