Pentecost or Pinse?

Words about words

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

Pentecost: Hvitasunnudagr, painting by Jóhannes Sveinsson Kjarval

Image: Public domain
“Hvitasunnudagr,” Jóhannes Sveinsson Kjarval.

Pentecost is the name of a Christian festival that linguistically is both simple and complex. It’s simple because it designates a specific day. It’s complex because in the European languages, there are two other names for it, Pinse (with spelling differences) in the Scandinavian languages, and Whitsun in English, that might seem unrelated but in fact differ only in their etymologies.

The root word is Pentēcostē, the Greek word for the Jewish harvest festival Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks mentioned in the Old Testament. Literally it means “fiftieth,” because it designates the conclusion of seven weeks from the offering of the second day of Passover. In the Christian tradition, Pentecost is celebrated on the seventh Sunday after Easter, which if counting Easter Sunday as Day 1 is the 50th day of Easter that commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples.

The Scandinavian word Pinse (in Danish and Norwegian, Pingst in Swedish) is derived from the Old German word Pinkosten, which via the Germanic word femfe is also the root of the numeral fem (five).

The English word Pentecost, as well as related words in other European languages, such as Pentecôte in French, more directly reflect the ancient Greek Pentēcostē. That said, there was a curious confusion of words after the Norman Conquest of England. From Anglo-Saxon, English had a descriptive word for the day, w(h)itsone(n), believed to have been derived from “White Sunday,” so named for the white garments worn by people expecting to be baptized that day. That word also appeared in the Icelandic Hvitasunnu-dagr.

Today, Whitsun survives as the name of the day in Britain and Ireland, and church and chapel parades, called Whit Walks, take place, often on Whit Friday following Whit Sunday. Likewise, the designation of the color white survived in Hvitasunnan, the word in Icelandic for the day. Moreover, in the world of art, Icelandic cubist painter Jóhannes Sveinsson Kjarval (1885-1972) is most famed for his 1919 painting, “Hvitasunnudagr.”

Originally published in Norwegian on the Clue dictionaries blog at blogg.clue.no.

M. Michael Brady was educated as a scientist and, with time, turned to writing and translating.

This article originally appeared in the May 18, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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