Printable Version
Pronunciation: hee-dhên Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun, adjective

Meaning: 1. (Derogatory) A non-believer, someone who does not acknowledge your God. 2. A pagan, someone who believes in a minor, especially polytheistic religion. 3. (Humorous) An unenlightened, uncultured person who breaks social rules.

Notes: Today's Good Word is a genuine (unborrowed) Germanic English word. The reason we see heath in it is no coincidence (see Word History). It has an adjective, heathenish "like a heathen". Heathenness and heathenism refer to the nature or belief of a heathen, and heathendom is the realm of all heathens, heathens collectively.

In Play: By simply adding the before today's word, the resulting phrase may replace heathendom: "Early settlers generally saw their mission as taming the wilderness and converting the heathen to Christianity." It may be used figuratively like this: "Myrtle is a heathen who puts her teabags in the sink!"

Word History: Evidence of today's Good Word may be found in all Germanic languages: German Heide, Dutch heiden, Swedish and Danish heden. The word has generally been assumed to be a direct derivative of Gothic haiþn "farmer, field-dweller" from haiþi "field, heath". Haiþn is a loose rendering of Latin paganus "villager, rustic", but after Christianity became the religion of the towns and the ancient deities remained in rural districts, it took on the sense of "pagan, heathen". So, it is no coincidence that heathen contains heath. Gothic may have borrowed this word from a non-PIE language. Some have speculated it came from PIE s(w)edh-no-, an extended form of swe-, the reflexive pronoun that produced English self and Russian svoj "one's own". However, the explanation of how this might be is long and tangled, hardly worth getting into here. (Now it is time to thank mega-contributor Lew Jury for today's surprising Good Word.)

Dr. Goodword,

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