Does “Protestant” Mean “One Who Protests”? (Updated)


Fred Sanders:

“Protest” might be the nearest cognate of “Protestant” in modern English, but it’s silly to take that as a clue to the word’s origin—sort of like finding “dance” in the word “concordance” and deciding they’re related; or “sacrilege” means putting religion in a sac; or that “validate” is from valid + date = “at the right time;” or “excruciate” means to take off of a cross, etc. But I digress.

The word seems to come from pro + testari, to testify forth, or to hold forth a position on something. Its primary historical meaning has been to assert, to maintain, to proclaim solemnly or state formally.

You can read the whole thing here.

HT: Joe Carter

Update: Dr. Sanders comments below:

Sorry my argument was a little sloppy and misleading. I shouldn’t have diagnosed the problem as bogus etymology, which is such a fun thing to ridicule that I got distracted (I wish I had thought of “ants who are in favor of exams,” by the way).

I should have diagnosed the problem as a failure to recognize semantic drift. Protest long had the sense of “holding forth,” with a specific application of “declaring love.” The easiest place to see this is in the 50-something occurrences in Shakespeare ( ). See also “protestation” as a term for a love-speech.

To say “Protestants, by their very name, are protesters” is to obscure the fact that the word has changed its sense over the years. It would be like saying “Jonathan Edwards admits that his God is awful and terrible,” without acknowledging that those words meant “awesome and way way awesome” when Edwards used them in the 18th century.

When somebody flourishes the idea that negativity is built into the very word “Protestant,” they are ignoring the semantic drift between the word’s coinage, its application to an identifiable religious group, and its current use.

For all I know, Protestants are the ones who caused the word to drift semantically into the domain of negation, by being nattering nabobs of negativism who know what they’re against but not what they’re for. But to claim it’s built into the word is sleight of hand, intentional or not.

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