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Conflicting Sources:

The following is a real life example from academic discourse taking place in January of 2002. On medieval e-mail lists, I have watched some debate among scholars about how the idea of "repentence" became so prominent in late medieval culture, and thus the question arose concerning where this word and concept originated. The trouble was that nobody agreed. Various sources offered varying etymologies. Different scholars offered differing theories concerning its origin. Some said the word was originally Latin. Others that the word was not Latin, but developed parallel to it from an older Greek or Indo-European source. Some said it originally meant "to rethink" or "to reweigh." Others said imeant "to feel regret." Others said that according to ministers it was originally associated with a Latin military phrase meaning "to turn away."

I reproduce the e-mail exchanges and some dictionary entries below. Suppose you needed to give the etymology of "repentence" in a paper you would writing. What is the "real" etymology? How would you choose which scholar, which dictionary or which source to trust? I list three dictionaries first, and then I list the e-mail exchanges from various scholars:

  • The American Heritage Dictionary (Etymology of "Repent") Middle English repenten, from Old French repentir: (re-, in response + Latin pentire, to be sorry).
  • Oxford English Dictionary (Etymology of "Repent") [ad. French. repentir (11th c.) from re- RE- + Roman *peniítre: Latin. poenitére: see PENITENT.] 1. refl. To affect (oneself) with contrition or regret for something done, etc. (cf. 3.) Also const. of, for, that. Now archaic.
  • Merriam-Webster Revised Dictionary (Etymology of "Repent") [? possible derivation from Latin paene or Greek poenere" (to suffer, to feel pain)]

Message Number One:
From: Pierre R Lafleur [mailto:lafpr@TOTAL.NET]
Sent: Monday, January 21, 2002 5:07 AM
Subject: Re: Dies Natalis:
I am alike curious to uncover the source of this aberration [in meaning]. For instance, to REPENT only signifies to RETHINK [a la French Repenser] and has no truck with shame, blame, regret, whips, hair shirts, etc. I suspect that we are wrestling with an after-taste of medieval masochism, e.g.: Marjorie Kemp, Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Siena and of course a (pun alert) host of apparent males in skirts. (my apologies to the pc mice, but I'm too old to change and don't care to anyway).
Pierre R Lafleur,
Ph.D. candidate.
alt: pierre.r.lafleur@umontreal.ca

Message Number Two:
From: Alan Baragona [BaragonaA@MAIL.VMI.EDU 01/21/02 16:52 PM]
Sent: Monday, January 21,
To: kwheeler@darkwing.uoregon.edu
Subject: TAN "repent"
Actually, "repent" does not mean "rethink" etymologically (maybe back to Indo-European; I haven't checked that far, but I doubt it). Latin "paeniteo" meant the same thing as its modern descendant "repent." It's not the same word as "penso," which gave French "penser" and eventually English "pensive." The latter has to do with literal and then metaphorical weighing. "Paeniteo" has to do with feeling sorrow and always has. See the Oxford English Dictionary.
Alan B.

Message Number Three:
Date: Tue, 22 Jan 2002 00:08:44 -0500
From: Landie Harris <salgadll@MUOHIO.EDU>
Reply-To: Chaucer Discussion Group <CHAUCER@LISTSERV.UIC.EDU>
Subject: Re: TAN "Repent"
I was taught in Sunday school that "repent" was a command used by the Roman military which called for a turn of 180 degrees, an "about face." Likewise, to "repent" of one's sins, then, was to make a turn away from them towards God. The OED [Oxford English Dictionary] says this about the Greek "metanoia": [to change one's mind, to repent.]
Penitence, repentance; reorientation of one's way of life, spiritual conversion.
1873 M. ARNOLD Lit. & Dogma vii. 196 Of 'metanoia', as Jesus used the word, the lamenting one's sins was a small part; the main part was something more active and fruitful, the setting up an immense new inward movement for obtaining the rule of life. And 'metanoia', accordingly, is: a change of the inner man. 1881 Amer. Church Rev. July 167 What a Metanoia was there, to both Jesus and John!.. And what a Metanoia had come also upon the disciples of John and upon Israel! 1918 Encycl. Relig. & Ethics X. 733/2 'Repentance' has an emotional tone; [...] is ethical and intellectual; the former is negative[]a turning away from sin; the latter is positive[]an enthusiasm for righteousness. 1939 V. A. DEMANT Relig. Prospect ix. 237 If we understand St. Paul's use of the word 'spiritual', not in our misleading sense of 'non-material' but as the nature of a creature turned to God, we see how this metanoia, this turning about, brings a restored understanding of the order of human powers and faculties. 1945 A. HUXLEY Let. 10 Apr. (1969) 520 Virgil's metanoia was in the nature of a death-bed repentance. 1969 F. DE GRAEVE in J. Kerkhofs Mod. Mission Dialogue p. xvi, It must reveal the Church..as the community in which the religious intentionality of all people can blossom into that newness of life that is the real metanoia. 1973 E. POWELL No Easy Answers xii. 123 To entertain this idea and to be penetrated with it is the change of mind, repentance, metanoia, of which the baptist was not the announcer but the forerunner."

Landie Harris
Miami University

Message Number Three:
Date: Mon, 21 Jan 2002 23:21:38 -0500
From: John Brennan <brennanj@IPFW.EDU>
Reply-To: Chaucer Discussion Group <CHAUCER@LISTSERV.UIC.EDU>
Subject: Re: TAN "Repent"

"Poena" originally referred to a payment of money to get rid of pollution connected with manslaughter; it's cognate with or derived from Greek "poine"-- "blood-money." (Also a goddess of vengeance.) Liddell-Scott compares the term to OE [Old English] "wergild." However, while English "pain" comes from Latin "poena" through French, the etymology of "penitent" (from which "repent") is not so clear. Merriam-Webster offers with (?) a derivation from "paene" (the adverb "almost"). In any case, neither "repent" nor "penitent" have to do with " (re)think" or with "penser," which comes from "pendare"-- "weigh." The sense of Late latin "p(a/o)enitere" was always to feel sorry for one's boo-boos--guilt or shame, your choice!

Message Number Four:
Date: Tue, 22 Jan 2002 11:03:01 +0500
From: Pierre R Lafleur <lafpr@TOTAL.NET>
Reply-To: Chaucer Discussion Group <CHAUCER@LISTSERV.UIC.EDU>
Subject: Re: The penitential path

There seems to be a disagreement between Latin and Greek roots if we believe one of our peers posting a contrary argument yesterday (unfortunately, I've trashed it along with 90 other e-mails). Our fellow was arguing that the Greek root *does* also signify a change of mind amongst other possible implicatures. The professor who had imparted the notion of 'rethink' to me is a Greek scholar. I wish we could make our own mind up before changing it <g>. Again, I don't mean to contradict any other viewpoint but only searching for the truth with a small flashlight (mind). so little time, so much to know--I feel like the Beatle's Nowhere Man.
Pierre R Lafleur, Ph.D. candidate.
alt: pierre.r.lafleur@umontreal.ca

Message Number Five:

Date: Tue, 22 Jan 2002 11:18:01+0500

From: Kevin Griffith <kgriffith@oswan.edu>


Subject: Re: OED:

I think we should trust the OED on this one. It's really the only dictionary of its sort that even attempts to list meanings according to century, and it is the most comprehensive dictionary out there. What other dictionary takes up 17 volumes on the library shelves?

Message Number Six:

Date: Tue, 22 Jan 2002 11:27+0500

From: Jeffrey Agatucci <TheTooch@AOL.COM>


Subject: Re OED: Hey Landie

I don't get one thing though. Landie, I understand the OED gives great info on the Greek word metanoia--but what does that have to do with poenitentia? Pointing out that the Greek word has connotations of rethinking rather than feeling sorry is all well and good, but the origin isn't connected at all, and I'm not sure we should trust a Greek scholar on this one. For that matter, I'm not sure we should trust the OED either. It was first slapped together over a hundred years ago, and there are a lot of mistakes in it that haven't yet been fixed in the later editions.


The Tooch

Message Number Seven:
From: Alan Baragona [BaragonaA@MAIL.VMI.EDU 01/23/02 15:52 PM]
Sent: Monday, January 23,
To: kwheeler@darkwing.uoregon.edu
Subject: a small request re: TAN repent

You might also add that, though I'm the one who first went to the OED, I am also aware that the OED is not always right about its earliest citations and probably sometimes, though less often, about its etymologies. In this case, however, I take the OED as authoritative because a couple of other dictionaries agree [cites several examples]. . . and I have no reason to doubt it.


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