A word: earnest

One of the things I love about our home is that my wife keeps an unabridged dic­tio­nary open on a stand in our liv­ing room. When­ev­er she looks up a word which she comes upon in her vora­cious read­ing, she makes a lit­tle pen­cil tic next to the entry. I have no such habit, but I often find myself stop­ping and perus­ing what­ev­er page it hap­pens to be open to. The oth­er day my eye caught the entry for earnest, and I was brought up short by what I saw.

Now, I have fre­quent­ly heard the expres­sion earnest-mon­ey used in (bor­ing grown-up) con­ver­sa­tion, and to my mind it made per­fect sense: a sum of mon­ey paid to assure one par­ty that the oth­er is seri­ous, earnest in their inten­tion. As I said, it makes sense, and I would nev­er giv­en the con­cept any fur­ther thought. But there are in fact two com­plete­ly inde­pen­dent words at work here, which evolved into an iden­ti­cal spelling in mod­ern English.

The earnest we think of (now almost exclu­sive­ly used adjec­ti­val­ly) is tak­en from Old Eng­lish eor­nust and goes back to an unknown base word which also pro­vid­ed the source for the Old Norse ern mean­ing ‘brisk, vigourous’ and the Goth­ic arni­ba ‘safe­ly’ (New Short­er Oxford Eng­lish Dic­tio­nary). As a noun, it means “seri­ous­ness, as opposed to jest” (op. cit.).

The oth­er earnest comes to us from a Mid­dle Eng­lish word — arles —rep­re­sent­ing a mediæ­val diminu­tive of the Latin word arrha, itself derived from the Greek arrabōn, all mean­ing ‘mon­ey giv­en as a pledge or to bind a trans­ac­tion’ i.e. earnest-mon­ey. An earnest can also be used fig­u­ra­tive­ly to mean any pledge or fore­taste of a per­son­’s inten­tions. The final form of the sec­ond was delib­er­ate­ly aligned with the form of the first some­where along the way, thus giv­ing us our two words in one.

And now we know that.

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