Beads are Holier than Thou

An example of the joys of etymology

Now that I’ve caught your attention with the title, here’s some preamble to introduce the topic, etymology! Now, etymology is the study of words and their origins (and the etymology of etymology is from the Greek “etymologia/ἐτυμολογία” which in turn is from “etymon/ἔτυμον” meaning true sense and -logia/λογία meaning “a study of/speaking of”).

          Etymology can be a fun subject for anyone to look into as you find words having quite weird origins, such as “berserk” which is thought to mean “bear-shirted/bare-shirted” from two Old Norse words meaning “bear” and “shirt” (or “bare” and “shirt”), the second word is most likely shirt from “serkr” meaning a type of coat, however, as in English, “bear” and “bare” are homophones, they also form a similar difficulty in Old Norse! So, either way it was a description of a people with whom the Norse people had contact who either had no shirt or wore shirts made of bear!

Should you just be interested in etymology because of possibly naked people or bear-coated people? Perhaps! But there’s so much beauty in words! It teaches you more about your language and how people see the world, for example in Japanese, a word for a type of horse meat eaten is called 桜肉 (さくらにく/sakura-niku) which literally means “cherry blossom meat” but it refers, in a poetic way, to how the colour of the meat is, taking away from the side of murder and brutality of killing an animal, and focusing on the intended enjoyment of the meal! Now, I could write a whole series of articles on Japanese and Chinese words and their origins, but I shall, for now, stay on subject.

Now to the subject of beads. Beads, you see, are prayers. This is not a metaphor, they are literally prayers. If you know some German (and learned it attending a Catholic school as I did), you may know that the verb “to pray” in German is “beten” with related nouns being “das Gebet” and “das Beten.” The verb form is related to the Old English “gebedian” and has a noun form of “bed” (which you can really see becoming the noun “bead” we see today! Although “bead” also existed in some texts!). This is, however, only the first part of the story!

There is already a religious meaning, so let us look at “Rosary beads”; it is because of these that we get our modern day meaning of “bead.” Think back to when Old English was spoken in England, religion was more prominent and people often saw/had rosary beads. Now, these used to be made up on knots on a string where each knot represented a prayer and was called a bed/bead however as time went on, people started referring to other objects as “bead”s because they looked similar to the spherical beads on their rosary beads. The meaning of “prayer” had already started to disappear from the noun “bed”, over time it eventually came to happen that the rosary beads were named that because they had beads on them, and these beads represented prayers rather than being prayers themselves! This is an example of how misuse of a word can change its meaning altogether!

There you have it, the story of how beads are holier than you might have thought!


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