A Slice of Paradise

Thinking of paradise today will put you in mind of the afterlife, perhaps religious notions of a wonderful heaven. Your mind might go to the Garden of Eden from the Bible.


And if it does, you would be right, at least for the first step on our journey. The word “paradise” came into English in the late 12th century from Old French paradis, which was used to denote the Garden of Eden, and in a more general sense “paradise” as we know it today. It came from Late Latin paradisus, with the same meaning. This in turn developed from ancient Greek παράδεισος (paradeisos), probably through religious influences, as it was also used to mean ‘Garden of Eden”. However, that is not all. Greek also used the word for “park”, long before Christianity spread the Eden reference throughout Europe.


Despite the Hellenic appearance of the word, with the prefix “para” so common in words of Greek origin, and indeed in many Greek words today, in fact “paradise” comes from further afield. Greek took it from Persian *pardez, from Avestan pairi-daeza, which meant “walled enclosure”. The first part of that, pairi, meant “around” and is a cognate of the Greek prefix περί– (peri), which we can see in such English borrowings from Greek as “perimetre” and “period”. Not only that, but Old English fore, meaning “in front of” or, still seen in this form today, of course, “before”, also shares a root with this preposition. And indeed “park” may ultimately come from the same source.


The second part, daeza, meant “wall”, and comes from a root meaning “make, build”.  This is thought to have developed from Proto-Indo-European root *dheigh-, meaning “to shape, build, knead”.  Interestingly, this is also the ultimate source of the English word “dough”, and the Latin fingere, which gives us “figure” in Modern English (both to be examined more fully in forthcoming articles).


How strange to think of dough, figure and paradise, with very different meanings today, all having come from the same source!


4 thoughts on “A Slice of Paradise

  1. Very interesting thanks. If “Paradise” could be understood roughly along the lines of being a “protected enclosure” or “walled space” esp. in the context of defining a boundary between the inner and outer regions (or in a spiritual sense perhaps dividing the holy and the profane or the unholy etc) then this probably resonated with e.g. the Anglo-Saxons and Scandinavians; the term “-garðr” as in “Midgarðr” (Midgard / Midgarth usually translated as “Middle Earth”) also literally meant a walled / enclosed space (and is the root of “Garden”, which is also somewhat linked conceptually e.g. Garden of Eden etc). Likewise Asgard would translate roughly as “Gods Enclosure” etc. In old Norse “Utgarðr” literally meant “Outside the Garth” or “Beyond the Protecting Wall” but this was also used as another term for “Jötunheimr”, the world of the “Giants” who were typically the enemies of the Æsir gods. By inference this thus placed the world of the gods (Asgarðr) and humans (Midgarðr) inside boundary walls, which is exactly how they are described in the mythology.

    Perhaps “Paradise” on the one hand defines a form of “safety” / “sanctuary” (inside the wall rather than outside it) but on the other hand is a way of dividing “us” from the “them” beyond the wall.

    • In Anglo-Saxon literature the Old English term used to translate the Christian concept of “paradise” was Neorxnawang which appears variously spelt as Neorxenawang, Neorxnawong, Neorcsnawang, Neorxena wang etc.
      Possibly translations for Neorxnawang include “field of contentment” seeing as the second element of the word, “-wang”, is considered to mean “field” and in Gothic waggs appears to be used to translate “paradise”.

      The first element “neorxena-” seems to pose a problem for translation, some theories suggest that it is a Proto-Germanic term for “Asgard” or “Other World” or that it corresponds with the North Germanic terms Iðavöllr (perhaps “field of activity” or “the continually renewing, rejuvenating field”) and Glæsisvellir (“glistening fields”). It’s also been proposes that the variant neorxena- derives from the phrase in Old English ne wyrcan (=”no working”). It seems that the Anglo-Saxon Christian authors who used it seemed to have an unclear understanding of Neorxenawang as well?

      • It’s probably no surprise that Romanian has inherited both the Slavic and Romance words for ‘paradise’ rai and paradis. What is surprising is that the Proto-Slavic *rajь is also considered to be an Iranian borrowing inherited from Proto-Indo-European *reh₁ís (“wealth, goods”) and cognate to Old Persian (rāy-, “paradise, wealth”), Avestan rāy-, “paradise, wealth” Sanskrit रयि (rayí) “property, goods” and Latin rēs “thing, matter, issue, affair”.

        The descendants of *rajь in the Slavic language family are:

        Belarusian: рай (raj)
        Russian: рай (raj)
        Ukrainian: рай (raj)
        Old Church Slavonic: раи (rai)
        Bulgarian: рай (raj)
        Macedonian: рај (raj)
        Serbo-Croatian: Cyrillic: ра̑ј Latin: rȃj
        Slovene, Polish, Slovak raj
        Czech: ráj

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