Easter etymology

Today’s lesson: learning the history of the word Easter and the names of its traditions


Regardless of your faith (or lack thereof), it’s likely you know the biblical story behind the Easter celebration. Jesus. Judas. Kisses. Pontius. Blood. Capital punishment. Death. Resurrection. That story. But do you know the history of the word Easter and the names of Easter traditions? That’s what we’ll learn in today’s post.

Easter etymology
Easter had quite a long journey before it looked like it does now. If you were around when we were still speaking Old English, Easter would have been Aestor, Aestur, Aeuster, Eastor, Eastra, Eastro, Eastur, Eostor, Eostro, Eostru, Eostur, Estur, Euster, and/or Eustur. (Source: Oxford English Dictionary Online) And if you were speaking Middle English, it would have been Aster, Astere, Astur, Astyr, Eester, Eestir, Estir, Estre, Eystere, Hester, Hestur, Hyster, Yestre, Ystyre, Estur, Estyr, Astr, Eister, Aister, Aisther, and/or Haster. (Source: Oxford English Dictionary Online)

Whew. This sure makes me glad people decided to start spelling English words the same way. (Well, minus the subject of British versus American spellings.)

Fun fact: Nearly all neighboring languages use a variant of the Latin word Pasche instead of Easter, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.

Easter’s other meaning
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Easter has another meaning, which is: “the action or act of receiving the Holy Eucharist during the season of Easter, as required of members of the Roman Catholic Church.” In this sense, Easter is usually used with the verb “to make,” as in “to make one’s Easter.”

baskets and bunnies
In the United States, we have the Easter bunny—that magical little furry creature that delivers candy and eggs to children, who then turn around and eat chocolate reproductions of that very animal. (Pretty cruel, if you think about it.) The Oxford English Dictionary Online cites the first printed reference to the Easter bunny as being in 1900 in The Frederick News in Frederick, Maryland.

But before the bunny, there was the hare. The Easter hare, to be exact. Or in Germany, where the hare makes its most visits, the Osterhase. The website germanoriginality.com says that the hare started being used as a symbol for Easter in the sixteenth century, with the first bunny-shaped pastries arriving a century later. Yum.

If you’re lucky, the Easter bunny, or Osterhase, will leave you treats that you can collect in your Easter basket. According to the OED, the first written reference of the Easter basket in the United States came from the city of Philadelphia in 1881.

A case for “they”

Ed Griffin’s recent post on his blog Writers Write Daily tackled a touchy subject. When referring to a person of unknown gender, should you use he/his or they/their? I, not surprisingly, have my own opinion about this topic that I would like to share with you today. (And, if you take a look at the title of this post, you probably can figure out where I stand. But, I digress.)

Historically, English speakers have used he/his in these scenarios, such as in this sentence:

Who left his Spock doll on my desk?

In this situation, the speaker does not know whether a male or female owns the lost Spock doll. However, the speaker uses his to mean either his or her.

Obviously, as a feminist living in the twenty-first century, this type of language seems sexist and archaic to me. When people use the traditional he/his in these situations, it reads chauvinistic—like it’s okay to use he when the person could be a she because the hes of this world are more important than the shes. (I’ll pause here so all of the women reading this can dry heave.)

But I’m not the only one who feels this way. This is why you may have noticed the trend toward using they/their in situations when you aren’t sure whether you are talking about a man or a woman. Today, you may be more likely to see the above example written like this:

Who left their Spock doll on my desk?

Why we have this he/she conundrum
The main problem is that Modern English does not have a gender-neutral pronoun that speakers could plug in to sentences where they would normally say he or she. However, this was not always the case for our dear English. Middle English did have such a pronoun. Dennis Baron explains this in his book Grammar and Gender:

In 1789, William H. Marshall records the existence of a dialectal English epicene pronoun, singular “ou”: ‘“Ou will’ expresses either he will, she will, or it will.” Marshall traces “ou” to Middle English epicene “a,” used by the 14th century English writer John of Trevisa, and both the OED and Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary confirm the use of “a” for he, she, it, they, and even I. This “a” is a reduced form of the Anglo-Saxon he = “he” and heo = “she.”

A resolution
There are two ways to resolve the lack of a gender-neutral pronoun.

  1. s/he and his/her
  2. they/their

You may have also noticed a rise in s/he and his/her. Using this option, our example sentence would look like this:

Who left his/her Spock doll on my desk?

This is a viable option to avoid the inherent sexism in simply using he. However, use it repeatedly and you may find that it becomes needlessly cumbersome. After a few his/her this and his/her thats, and you’ll likely wish we were still speaking Middle English with its gender-neutral pronoun.

But there’s an easier solution. Just use they/their. It has become widely acceptable as a workaround, and everyone but your most conservative copy editor will let it slide.

One more thing about they
Ed Griffin’s post included this interesting note about they from dictionary.com:

Such use (their) is not a recent development, nor is it a mark of ignorance. Shakespeare, Swift, Shelley, Scott, and Dickens, as well as many other English and American writers, have used they and its forms to refer to singular antecedents. Already widespread in the language (though still rejected as ungrammatical by some), this use of they, their,  and them  is increasing in all but the most conservatively edited American English. This increased use is at least partly impelled by the desire to avoid the sexist implications of he as a pronoun of general reference.

See, if you use they, you’ll be in the good company of the likes of Shakespeare and Dickens. As if you needed persuading . . .