29 November 2013

Advent Is Coming!

On the eve of Advent, a little exploration of things to come...

A few weeks ago, a friend was wondering what the German word Sonnabend means. The answer is "Saturday", but it's not the normal word for Saturday (that's Samstag). Hence his wonderment.

I started musing on why there's this second word for Saturday, and where that word might have come from.

My departure point is usually to think of other words with one or more of the same roots as my object of investigation. In this case:

  • Abend ("evening")
  • Feierabend (basically, "the end of the work day")

The latter adds to "evening" the concept of feiern (the verb "to celebrate"), which makes a lot of sense at the end of the work day. But why have a word that literally translates to "celebrate-evening" but designates the part of the day before the evening? Similarly, the Sonnabend designation of Saturday as "Sun-evening" seems to put the cart before the horse.

In both instances, -abend is used to designate a moment now, but before the other part of the word ("celebration" and "Sunday").

Maybe, I thought, I'm thinking of "evening" as too limited, as a specific evening part of the day. Maybe there's some more original idea in the word "evening".

Then it hit me how similar German Abend is to English (and others from Latin) advent! I don't know why it took me so long to get here... Because advent means, loosely, "something coming" (L. ad-venire = "to come to"). And then it also hit me how French avenir ("future", as in "something to come") also comes from the same L. root.

So "evening", Ger. Abend and the Fr. word for "future" are all related, and we can see that in our English use of an expression like "on the eve of..."

With this understanding, it becomes very clear why Germans might say Feierabend or Sonnabend, because they're talking about the thing to come, or in these cases, "celebration" and "Sunday".

And with that, if you hadn't already thought of it, I direct your attention to the first line of this entry.

Happy Holiday Evenings!