The origin of the word Lent

Christian and pagan

Gabriel in Leonardo's Annunciation
Gabriel in Leonardo’s Annunciation

A very erudite buddy of mine shared this with our fellow Bible Guys recently. He’s allowed me to share it with you.

Regarding the origin of the word Lent, the name for the Christian fast is a shortening of lenten.

In Chaucer’s day, it was a word for the springtime that had also been extended to refer to the Christian observance coinciding with the season.
Lenten itself began as good Anglo-Saxon lengten, a compound word, the first element derived from Indo-European *dlongʰós=long, and the second, ten, from Indo-European *deyn = day.

Exegesis re terms for Lent in other languages

English is quite unusual in adopting the term Lent. Other Germanic tongues simply use Fast or some variation thereof (German – Fastenzeit, Norweigian – fastetid or langfaste).

Latin, translating the original Greek 40th, established quādrāgēsima, which at 5 syllables was destined to be eroded in Italian to 4 syllables, Quaresima. In Spanish and Portuguese to 3, Cuaresma. Finally and, not insignificantly, farthest away, in French, as Carême to 2.

Slavic tongues all have some variant of ‘great fast’ e.g. Polish – Wielki Post [Slavic p = f].

Dutch situated between the Romance lands to the south and the Germanic to the east has both veertigdagentijd (= 40 days time) translating the Latin and vastentijd (fast-time), preserving the native Germanic term.

Similarly, Serbo-Croatian (the same language, aka Serb when written in Cyrillic and Croatan when appearing in Latin), a border language if ever there was one, has both Latin sourced korizma (cf quaresima) and Slavic, Veliki post.

Hawaiian has Kalema, which at first looks exceptional, but given l = r, must be a loan from Sp. or Por or Fr.

Finally, there is Maltese. Once you know that it is descended from Arabic (although written in Latin alphabet), you can perhaps guess that their word, Randan, comes from Ramadan. In Modern Arabic, though, to come full circle, Lent is known as “aṣ-ṣawm al-kabīr” ( اَلصَّوْمالْكَبِير‎ ), which they tell me means “great fast.”

The takeaway

Apropos of Xian and pagan celebrations, it occurred to me that the practice of aligning the new with the extant, while a cooptation, bespeaks admirable toleration from the victor not always seen after an intense confrontation. It is especially rare, sadly, when the conflict involves successful revolt of an erstwhile oppressed element of the dominant hegemon.

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