Lexicon Valley

Which Came First the Bunny or the Egg? (And Other Linguistic Intrigues of Easter.)

One of us predates the other.

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

There is a linguistic connection between Easter and Passover
This week is the Jewish holiday of Passover and, simultaneously, the Christian Holy Week leading up to Easter, the holiday commemorating the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Indeed, Christian writings make an explicit connection between the two holidays, equating Jesus to a “paschal lamb,” a reference to the traditional Passover sacrifice. The English adjective paschal, which can mean either “relating to Passover” or “relating to Easter,” is derived from the Hebrew word for Passover, pesaḥ (typically written as Pesach in English). In most European languages, this is also the origin of the word used for Easter: French Pâques, Italian Pasqua, Spanish Pascua, Icelandic páskar, Dutch Pasen, Swedish påsk, etc. There is a similar English word, Pasch, dating back to Old English, which has been used to refer to both Passover and Easter, but it’s comparatively rare.

Among the Germanic languages, English and German (in which Ostern is the word for Easter) are exceptional in not using a word related to Passover as their usual word for Easter. Easter and Ostern are most likely derived ultimately from the same Germanic root as the direction east, which in turn is cognate with the word for dawn in many ancient languages (like Classical Latin’s aurora). The precise origins of the word Easter are shrouded in the mists of history, but there are clear metaphorical links between dawn and spring, rebirth and resurrection.

The word Easter has been connected with a pagan goddess
The Venerable Bede, an English monk writing in Latin during the 8th century, claimed that the word Easter came from the name of a goddess called Eostre, whose festival was celebrated by pagan Anglo Saxons at the time of the vernal equinox. This goddess presents something of a mystery: it is impossible to substantiate the story, since Bede’s is the only record of her existence, and some scholars have suggested that she may have been the product of his own invention. Nonetheless, as the Oxford English Dictionary points out, “it seems unlikely that Bede would have invented a fictitious pagan festival in order to account for a Christian one.”

In English, Easter eggs are much older than the Easter bunny
The first English reference to “Easter eggs” dates from the 16th century:

a1572   J. Knox Hist. Reformation v. 404   Himself fast tyed to the said Crosse, where he tarried the space of one hour; During which time, the boyes served him with his Easter egges.

A less festive citation could hardly be imagined: this is a description of a punishment administered to a Catholic priest in Edinburgh in 1565. He was tied to a cross and pelted with the eggs in question. In northern England and Scotland around this time, Easter eggs were also called pace eggs or pasch eggs.

In the United States today, Easter eggs and the Easter bunny are twin icons of the holiday, but the first evidence for the latter phrase in English is from more than three centuries later, in 1900. That’s because it is originally a German tradition, and was widely adopted among English-speakers only after being popularized in North America by people of German descent. There is slightly earlier evidence for Easter rabbit (1881), and Easter hare (1851). Similarly, the phrase Easter basket is recorded only from the 1880s in the United States.

English has more than a dozen words for Mardi Gras
In the United States, the day before Ash Wednesday is known, thanks to the influence of Louisiana French, as Mardi Gras (’Fat Tuesday’), an allusion to the consumption of meat on this last day before the traditional Lenten fast. In the UK it is often called Shrove Tuesday, with shrove most likely being related to the word shrive, referring to the practice of confession, traditionally undergone as part of the preparation for Lent. The OED records over a dozen different words for the day, and they generally take one of these two approaches, referring either to the indulgence of this last day before Lent (as in Pancake Day or gut-tide), or the period of self-restraint to follow (as in Fastens-een or Fastingong).

“Maundy” and “mandate” come from the same word
Another unfamiliar word associated with Easter comes in the name of Maundy Thursday, for the Thursday before Easter (also called Holy Thursday). Maundy refers to the ceremony of the washing of the feet that is traditionally performed on this day, in commemoration of Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet before the Last Supper. Maundy came to English via an Anglo-Norman word mandet or mandé, and thence ultimately from the Latin word mandātum (the same word which brings us the English word mandate) in the phrase mandatum novum “a new commandment,” as in John 13:34: “a new commandment I give to you, that you love one another.”

Lent meant “spring” before spring meant “spring”
In modern English, Lent refers to the period before Easter that is traditionally observed by Christians as a time of fasting, abstinence, and penitence. Originally, though, it was simply a Germanic word for the season of spring, probably deriving ultimately from the same root as long, in reference to the lengthening days of the season. By the 11th century, Lent, or Lenten, had taken on the specialized Christian usage it has today, and by the end of the 14th century the “spring” meaning was obsolete except in a few agricultural terms. In fact, Lenten is the earliest English word currently recorded in the OED for the season between winter and summer; the first citation for the word spring in this meaning is from hundreds of years later, in the 16th century.

That should give you plenty to talk about during dinner on Sunday or while breaking the fast next week. Happy Easter and good Pesach!