On Passover and Easter

Q: Why do the words for Passover and Easter sound similar in different languages? They can’t have the same origin, can they?

A: Words for Passover and Easter are similar in many languages, especially European languages, because the lookalikes are derived from the Hebrew word for the Jewish holiday, פסח (Pesach).

So “Passover” is Pâque in French, Passah in German, Pasqua in Italian, Påske in Norwegian, Pascha in Polish, Pascua in Spanish, etc.

Similarly, “Easter” is Pâques in French, Pasqua in Italian, Påske in Norwegian, Pascua in Spanish, and so on.

Two notable exceptions are in English and German, where “Easter” and Ostern are believed to be derived from prehistoric words for “east” and “dawn,” and may have been influenced by an ancient Germanic goddess of the spring.

Among other European exceptions are those in some Slavic languages that refer to Easter with various terms meaning “Great Night” or “Great Day.”

The Hebrew word פסח was first recorded in the biblical account of the freeing of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt.

In the Book of Exodus, it’s a verb usually translated as to pass over and a noun for the ritual sacrifice of a lamb on the first Passover, the meal eaten from it, and God’s passing over the homes of the Israelites.

In Exodus 12:23, the clause “ופסח יהוה” means “and the Lord will pass over”—that is, skip or omit—the homes of the Israelites during the last of the Ten Plagues (the killing of Egypt’s firstborn).

In other verses of Exodus 12, the noun פסח refers to the the sacrifice, the meal, and God’s passing over:

“פסח הוא ליהוה” (“a passover [sacrifice] to the Lord,” Ex. 12:11) … “ושחטו הפסח” (“and slaughter the Passover [sacrifice],” Ex. 12:21) … “זבח־פסח הוא ליהוה” (“a sacrifice to the Lord’s passover [passing over],” Ex. 12:27) … “זאת חקת הפסח” (“this is the rule of the Passover [meal],” Ex. 12:43).

The “pass over” sense of the verb פסח was first recorded in the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Old Testament from the third-century BC. Although that’s the usual way the verb is translated in English versions of Exodus, the Hebrew term has been translated several other ways over the years, such as take pity or protect.

The term first appeared in English in William Tyndale’s 1530 translation of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible: “And ye shall eate it in haste, for it is the Lordes passeouer” (Exodus 12:11).

The English term showed up a few years later in the same passage from Myles Coverdale’s 1535 translation of the New and Old Testaments: “and ye shal eate it with haist: for it is ye LORDES Passeouer.”

Most European languages refer to Easter with variations on pascha, post-classical Latin for “Passover.” (The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus took place during the seven days of Passover, according to the Christian Gospels.) The Latin pascha is a transliteration of πάσχα in Hellenistic Greek, which is in turn a rendering of פסחא, the Aramaic version of the Hebrew פסח.

In Old English, pasca (“pasch” in Modern English) could refer to either Easter or Passover, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary. Both usages appear in Byrhtferð’s Enchiridion (1011), a wide-ranging compilation of information on astronomy, mathematics, logic, grammar, rhetoric, and more:

  • “Pasca ys Ebreisc nama, and he getacnað oferfæreld” (“Pasca is the Hebrew name, and it signifies Passover”).
  • “He abæd æt þam mihtigan Drihtne … þæt he him mildelice gecydde hwær hyt rihtlicost wære þæt man þa Easterlican tide mid Godes rihte, þæne Pascan, healdan sceolde” (“He prayed to the mighty Lord … that He kindly make known to him where under God’s law one should rightly observe the Pasch, the Easter season”).

However, an early version of “Easter” had appeared centuries before in Old English. The oldest recorded example in the OED is from an early eighth-century Latin manuscript in which the Northumbrian monk Bede discusses the origin of Old English names for the months.

In De Temporum Ratione (“The Reckoning of Time”), 725, Bede says the Old English Eostur-monath (“Easter-month”) is derived from Eostre, a goddess of the dawn celebrated by pagan Anglo-Saxons in Northumbria around the time of the vernal equinox or beginning of spring:

“Eostur-monath, qui nunc paschalis mensis interpretatur, quondam a dea illorum quae Eostre vocabatur, et cui in illo festa celebrabant, nomen habuit, a cujus nomine nunc paschale tempus cognominant, consueto antiquae observationis vocabulo gaudia novae solemnitatis vocantes.” (“Easter-month, which is now taken to mean the Paschal month, was once named for a goddess called Eostre, who was celebrated with a festival that month and whose ancient name is now used for a joyful new rite.”)

In its entry for “Easter,” the OED includes an extensive discussion of Bede’s etymology, but it notes that his “explanation is not confirmed by any other source, and the goddess has been suspected by some scholars to be an invention of Bede’s.” However, the dictionary adds that “it seems unlikely that Bede would have invented a fictitious pagan festival in order to account for a Christian one.”

The dictionary says the Old English term for the Christian holiday is probably derived from the same prehistoric Germanic source as “east,” which can be traced to an ancient Indo-European base with the probable meaning “to become light (in the morning).”

The first OED citation for an Old English version of “Easter” that refers to the holiday itself, not the month, is from a Latin-Old English glossary of the 10th century: “Phase, eastran” (Phase is a Latin term for “Easter”). From The Latin-Old English Glossary in MS Cotton Cleopatra AIII (1951), by William Garlington Stryker.

The dictionary’s next example is from De Temporibus Anni (“On the Seasons of the Year”), a 10th-century handbook by Ælfric of Eynsham: “On sumon geare bið se mona twelf siðon geniwod, fram ðære halgan eastertide oð eft eastron” (“In some years, the moon becomes new twelve times, from the holy Eastertide to Easter again”).

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On Passover and Easter