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shameless pleading






Spare me.

Dear Word Detective: I am writing to you from the research department of a large magazine. We have a story that I am fact-checking in which the author states: “… a friend of mine told me that the origin of the word ‘forgive’ means to untie….” This kind of statement causes fact-checkers a lot of stress. Of course I am unable to verify this “fact” and am forced to go hunting on my own. Do you have any insight into the origin of the word “forgive?” — N. R.

Hmm. Odd. But this brings up a question of my own. I have always wondered how many layers, so to speak, fact-checkers are expected to plow through in search of “the truth.” In this case, for instance, you have an author who reports that a friend said that “forgive” originally meant “untie.” Let us presume that you verify that the author’s friend actually said that. So the statement by the author is true. You then have to worry whether the friend is right? Perhaps the friend read it in a book written by a fellow in Helsinki. Where do you stop? After all, if that open-ended approach were applied to the statements of politicians, newspapers would contain nothing but ads for lost pets.

In this case, being the helpful sort that I am, I can report that the author’s friend’s cousin’s landlord’s parrot, or whoever we’re talking about, is seriously misinformed. “Forgive” never meant “untie.” The root of “forgive” is the Latin word “perdonare,” meaning “to give completely, without reservation.” (That “perdonare” is also the source of our English “pardon.”)

When the Latin “perdonare” was adopted into the Germanic ancestor of English, it was translated piece-by-piece, making the result what linguists call a “calque” (from the French “calquer,” to trace or copy) a literal transliteration. “Per” was replaced by “for,” a prefix that in this case means “thoroughly,” and “donare” with “giefan” (“to give”). The result, “forgiefan,” appeared in Old English meaning “to give up, allow” as well as “to give in marriage.” In modern English, “forgive” has also taken on the meanings of “to pardon for an offense,” “renounce anger at” (“I forgive you for feeding bean tacos to my dog “) and “to abandon a claim on” (as in “forgive a debt”).

As to where your author’s friend’s “untie” theory might have come from, I catch a whiff of New Age psychobabble in that story. It’s easy to imagine some pop-happiness guru explaining that our anger and resentment are the “ties” that bind us, and that only by “forgiving” others can we be freed to chase butterflies through fields of daisies or whatever. Personally, I’ll believe it when I see it practiced by the IRS.

39 comments to Forgive

  • I agree with the above except I am a little more ‘forgiving’ about the ‘untie’ interpretation. As a Christian I am assured the Bible makes it very clear those we do not forgive we retain a hold over. It is only when we release forgivness that we release that person from our binding hold into God’s hands of mercy and Grace. In this sense we release people when we forgive, and ‘untie’ will do for me. It’s a good picture language demonstration of the power of forgivness. Hence the central importance of total forgiveness of others in Christian teaching. e.g. even in the Prayer it is a central issue, and many scriptures. God bless.

  • Michael King

    Remember that forgiving also releases the “forgivers” from ties of resentment and hatred that tie them to the those who have wronged them. In a sense we are released when we forgive, regardless of what is released in the forgiven….

  • Forgiveness is a great subject until it comes to PERSONALLY forgiving (thoroughly giving without reservation). Functionally, forgiveness unties us from the past and others from us but it is more than that. Forgiveness is thoroughly giving. i.e. It is absorbing the loss without reservation; hence, “giving without reservation.” God made us all to need others and be dependent upon each other. Unforgiveness ties us together in unhealthy (more depression after open heart surgeries, lower quality of life, etc.) psychological ways. Forgiveness not only sets others free and us… it not only absorbs the loss (which if it stopped here it would sound of victimization… it gives completely without reservation. It takes the initiative and gives. Now anyone reading this should begin to feel unable to do this when it comes to anything really worth the term. That is why we need to be forgiven ourselves which becomes the inspiration and power to forgive as we have been forgiven.

  • Lisa Stevenson

    Although I am a fan of word studies, and in general I think people ought to do more of them before they go recklessly slinging terminology; in this case it seems that if one finds it exceedingly necessary to research the fine nuances of a word for a concept such as “forgiveness” maybe one is not emotionally or spiritually prepared to consider the option of forgiving. After all, can you have reservations about “giving without reservation?” Just saying…

  • Charlie Nunzio

    Here’s a quote attributed to Lewis B. Smedes that speaks to Mike King’s comment: “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and to discover that the prisoner was you.”

    My two cents: forgiveness is NOT a feeling but a behavior. It is a choice to act in a certain way toward someone who hurt you. You need not forget the hurt, but you can choose to forgive.

  • Apu Agarwal

    NOPE…none of the above…The word forgive means to “give as before”. In the example of the prisoner, it would mean to give the prisoner as he had it before…freedom (“free” to set “domicile” where desired “aka no restrictions in movement/locomotion”). In the personal sense in human interactions, forgiving a person is to “give” yourself to further interactions with the involved person in the same manner as you had “before” the occurrence of the “incident” that caused you grief. This does mean “releasing” the other person and giving them freedom to exist in your space and in interactions with you without the presence of the offending incidence in the space between you. What is interesting is that the word forget similarly means that you “get” it as before…the offending incidence no longer exists in your personal space, let alone in the interactive space between you and the other person.

    • Henriette Verschuren

      Very beautiful

      • Dusty

        Thank you for shining light on this… I love studying the evolution of words, actually it’s a source of frustration & sadness sometimes, but fascinating. I was bummed out by this articles explanation- but your comment cheered me up. I’m feeling a little silly about caing so much– so I’ll stop writing now :)

    • Daniel

      This is true, I believe written on this idea of “forgive and forget” concentrating on the root words give and get, or give and receive. ( The prefix “for” may be the same as “Fore” in golf, which describes the arch of the ball required to overcome an obstacle.I think that is very close. It’s not very different from what you are saying. But in either case, what is implied is that there exists a relationship of giving and receiving. Then an offense occurs. To forgive and forget (or for-receive) is to overcome the offense and to continue giving and receiving. Subsequently, the experience of feeling forgiven, can only happen in the context of a giving/receiving relationship.

  • I agree with Apu that forgive is to give as before, meaning perhaps, give attention too “as before”, give your love “as before” It is here that I would like to add something new to the understanding of forgiving. If we can “fore”-give this could be seen as pre-forgiveness and is a much easier way to release unnecessary stress. In scripture it says that a person should forgive seventy times seven in one day and this leads me to see that we should be in a pre-forgiveness state of being (ready willing and able) Its how I live my life and you can bet I experience less stress than the average person, less heartache and I never get into “unnecessary” arguments.

  • SeanCalvin

    I’ll have to concur with Apu and Richard. Sometimes it helps not to dig too deeply if we want the true meaning of a word – that is if we truly intend to practice what we’re researching.
    To for-give simply means to give before – to let go ahead of time.
    This fits with what Jesus said about forgiving an offense seventy times seven. If we take this admonition in the traditional sense it would mean we’d have to let go of an offense 490 times. That not only sounds extremely stressful, it seems very unrealistic.
    It would be much more realistic to take Jesus’ admonition on forgiveness as simply meaning; “not to take offense at all.”
    The real lesson in forgiving an offensive person 500 times is that my heart learns not to take offense in the first place.
    In other words, to forgive in its true sense means not to take up an offense, period.
    Whether we realize it or not, the stress and the trauma that an offense has upon us is due entirely to our taking exception to what was done to us or to someone we love or something we value. If we didn’t take an offense there would be nothing to “forgive.”
    When we refuse to take offense – we have in all truth fore-given our offender. If we let go ahead of time there is nothing to forgive after the fact. When we fail to “fore-give” we are left with the fallout of irreconsilable differences.
    This definition is much closer to the meaning of the Greek word “aphiemi” used in the original text, which means “to let go, forsake, lay aside, leave alone, put away, omit.”

    “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive (aphiemi) him? As many as seven times? Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven….And out of pity for him the lord of that servant released him and forgave (aphiemi) him the debt.”

    To put it simply – to forgive simply means to not take offense – to refuse to take to account, to let go of an offense ahead of time, to pre-omit the sin – to fore-give. If we keep it simple we can practice it – without the stress of having to deal with the traumatic after effects!

  • To fore-give is to be one who never takes offence at all

  • It is very interesting to read all of the above entries in my quest to understand the word, concept and act of forgiveness. I am looking at the word ‘for-‘ as a prefix (i.e. away, off, apart), as in not receiving what is given. That is,to’forgo’ or decline the ‘gift’. This idea is reflected in a story I heard about the Buddha, when he told someone that he refused to accept their gift of anger. I think we can do this after the event in our imagination as well.

  • austin

    if you would like a really in-depth look at forgiveness, try here –


  • Sami

    “Forgive” is untie in Aramaic/Syriac, “shbag”, that’s where your friend got that “forgive” means untie. But it only means so in Aramaic. The root of the word in English is well explained above as “per-donare”!

  • Robert

    Though not a true root of forgive, my working definition has become “to not judge in the first place”. If I don’t judge, there is nothing for me to forgive. That’s easier said than done using a mind that constantly scans the world using a “friend or foe” filter. My penny…

  • Eugene Ryan

    It seems to me that a lot of comments above are confusing the root origins of the word and their religious teaching on the word. The question was about the roots and origin and was answered. How that word is used in religion teachings is irrelevant as a comment.

  • zoe

    No need to take offence, Eugene. if forgiveness isn’t a spiritual concept, I dont know what is.

  • Bob Turrou

    First of all, I loved the answers. Together they were a chapter on a book on forgiveness.

    Forgiveness as described in A Course in Miracles is realizing that what you thought someone did to you never really happened in the first place. How is that possible? Never really happened?

    It’s in how you define “real.” It defines it in this way:

    Nothing real can be threatened.
    Nothing unreal exists.
    Herein lies the peace of God.

    Does unforgiveness make you happy? Not me. What does make me happy? Forgiving people for doing things that don’t matter in the least in terms of eternity…they don’t even exist in those terms.

  • Jane

    Pardon. Keep it simple.

  • Joe P

    I like Jane’s and the Detective’s take on it.
    The question was about the anatomy of an English word.
    The relationship between forget, forgo, and forgive helps.
    I thank you all for this conversation. “Shbag” is a new one for me.
    Anne Christine: can you share a link to the for- root you used? I can’t find it anywhere.

  • Kris K

    Since it seems that this conversation has meandered away from the strict etymological discussion I would like to offer these thoughts on forgiveness.

    Forgiveness is not about somehow magically undoing the pain. Forgiveness is about releasing the expectation that the person who hurt you owes you anything. By forgiving you are releasing the expectation that someone else is going to fix the hurt you feel inside. You are releasing any debt to you and you are saying “You don’t owe me anything. I don’t want anything from you.” The remaining pain is yours now. You can process it however you like. You can hold onto it and let it grow to consume you. You can keep it in a dark corner of your soul to bring out whenever his name is mentioned or someone crosses the street that looks like her. Or you can use the pain as a key to unlock the part of you that is hidden behind the pain. The key will open a part of you that holds a beautiful need. And once found, nurturing the beautiful need will heal you. Forgiveness will not heal the pain but it is a necessary first step.

  • Dusty

    Biblically speaking its basic meaning is to clear all debt— It’s one of MANY financial terms used in bible stories. So by noticing the frequency of this sort of money/value reference, we can realize what it’s intended meaning was from the original authors. God is LOVE- and LOVE can & will clear all your debts— fix everything that’s broken, replace what’s lost etc. but the on,u way to get that is thru TRUTH (Jesus says he is truth) and TRUTH always leads to ultimate freedom, understanding etc- which clears all emotional/spiritual debts. Blah blah blah If we all lived in our truth & allowed others to do the same- we would be free. By the way the greatest truth I know of at this moment is: God created us all>>> We are all created beings, genetics/DNA reacting to unchosen environments – No one creates themselves, until they become aware of this truth & begun interacting with their creator THRU TRUTH, and then have influence on something’s. God takes all the glory AND all the blame, for everything.

  • Wal

    Its origins reach far further back than this latin interpretation if I recall an Egyptian pharoah some four thousand years BC was noted for his forgiving nature, Ramases.

  • Tom

    Etymology allows us to study the origin of a word to gain insight into that word. The very reason etymology exists is that words and their meanings by nature change over time and use. Words evolve. The reasoning for this study therefore, shouldn’t be to disprove the comment but to understand how it came about. In that vein the the Word-Detective did a great job!

  • In Aramaic, the word Forgive meant “to untie a knot”- as in release the negative tie to someone. This is from the Biblical scholar at the Neuropa Institute inGeorgia. I often lecture on the relationship between forgiveness in traumatic grief and resilience.

    • JP

      Thanks for your addition, Gail. That brings the discussion full circle. The link between ancient and modern languages, and the psycho-social and spiritual processes of forgiveness to its language is fascinating. I’ve always thought of language as reflecting a cultures shared understandings and logic. But that may be sometimes expecting too much of it, i suppose. Cheers.

  • JP

    Thanks for the study on forgive. I thought the untie story seemed implausible. Your use of the phrase, ‘ties that bind’, raised an eyebrow though. the “tie that binds” is usually a positive thought. As in, “Blessed be the tie that binds”.

  • Rom

    In addition there is the French saying that may indicate the path to forgiveness. ‘Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner.’Or to understand all, is to forgive all. Interesting similarity between ‘pardonner’ and ‘per-donare’ no?

  • Thank you for an interesting discussion. My addition is the Buddhist proverb:

    When you pick up a hot coal to throw at someone, it is your hand that gets burned.

  • Kathleen Lieberman

    I had a Rabbi explain to me that forgivness required the correcting of the error. When I ask for forivness I am asking that the previous wrongful act be forgotten because the error was now corrected. I thought this made more constructive and positive logic than anything I heard before in a theological review. In the ‘Our Father’ we ask tha our our trespasses be forgotten as we forget others’. It makes good logic that we be cognizant of our errors and offenses against others to achieve the desired goal of Goodwill towards Men.

  • Rav Dov Ephraim

    The Aramaic root “sh.b.q” has the basic meaning of “let go,” “leave behind,” or even “abandon” (corresponding to the Hebrew “‘a.z.b”). It can mean “forgive” in the sense of leaving the matter behind. (As such, it can also mean “divorce.”) “Untie” isn’t really a good translation.

  • Daniel Pryor

    I can certainly see “forgive” linked with “untie.” The word seems always to be used in connection with relief from debt or penalty.

    However, I came to this site hoping to find an answer to why the English have the prefix “for” ahead of the word “give.” Forth give? Or, is the prefix “for” intended to describe the act of overlooking the fault (as “Fore” in golf describes the arch needed to overfly an obstacle). Then why the word root “give”? My hunch is that the whole reason for overlooking the fault assumes that the fault stands as a barrier to the act of giving, so that the fault must be overlooked in order for the giving to take place. This idea seems more plausible to me, in light of the fact that the need of forgiving is often accompanied with the need of “forgetting.” (giving and getting) I seem to have hit a wall though. I can’t find any real etiology for the terms.

  • Dan Riley V

    I find it funny how those who began to argue with knowledge presented nothing more than their own, however educated/philosophical they may be, opinion. I believe we came here for factual research. But since we’re adding opinions, the whole reason I sought further insight is because deep down, I believe it means to give in advance. While I understand that would likely require an ‘e’between the ‘r’ and the ‘g’, respectively, but given thought, at least from a Christian perspective, this makes some sense. I’m reminded of the term “pay it forward”. Thank you, all, for the insight.

  • Jan Campbell

    Having read all the above, I have come to believe that forgiveness grings great peace and more so if i do not be to arrogant to take umbridge in the first place

  • In terms of the original question, while the English root may not mean “untie”, it may depend on the context of what the friend heard/meant. They may have used the English word but been referring to a word translated as ‘forgive’, with the original language word meaning ‘untie’. That sounds quite plausible.

  • Evelyn

    Could it be they were referring to the Greek afesis? It has the idea of letting go and of sending away. Sorry my Greek is not so good

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