Word of the Day: thank

Word of the Day: thank


Our word today sounds like think, and that’s appropriate, because the words are related. We move from a verb that means “to seem, to appear,” as in German duenken, to the causative verb “to make an image appear to oneself,” in one’s own mind, as in think (Anglo Saxon thyncan, German denken), to a verb meaning “to think good thoughts about someone else,” a causative on top of a causative: Anglo Saxon thancian, German danken, Swedish tak, English thank.

I’m fonder of the Romance language words for giving thanks. Gratias agimus tibi, we Catholics sing in the Gloria when we return to Latin for the prayers sung on the great feasts; and the word gratias suggests the free gift of a loving heart, a gift of praise. A whole host of words in the Romance languages help us to understand the connection between true freedom and love: gratitude is a gift of love in response to a loving gift; grace is the free gift of God’s favor to man, and even as a description of human beauty and kindness it suggests something free, something in excess of what is strictly necessary. The Latin word is preserved in Italian grazie, Spanish gracias, French grace.

When a Frenchman sings thanks to God at Mass, it’s grace a toi; but when he thanks the waiter at the café, he uses the word merci, closely related to our English word mercy. That too has an underlying idea of a free gift, but this time it’s the generous reward for service rendered. Mercy is related to our words merchandise and market, though those words kept to the original Latin track, for words having to do with buying and selling. The idea is that mercy is given far in excess of what is really merited. The word in the Latin Bible that is usually translated as mercy, however, is completely unrelated: misericordia, literally pity in the heart.

The Greek word for giving thanks gives us our English eucharist, a good-giving, a good-gracing. And who is giving, in the sacrament? Christ is giving Himself, the giver and the gift at once, and we are giving Him praise and thanks in return. It is a good-giving on both sides.
On Thanksgiving, which President Lincoln established as a national feast, we might-should glance away from the football games and the table to think of God’s grace and mercy, abounding far beyond our fitful and uncertain attempts to do what is right and just.

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