I was inspired by an article on a friend’s blog to write about this word.
It has come a long way and is now quite different from the word it sprang from, which is still in use in its original language today.
We find an older form in English in the 16th century, churche. But this developed from an earlier form, cyrce, as can be seen here, in this reference from the Peterborough Chronicle, from 1131.
Ðes oðer dæies..cusen þa muneces abbot of hemself and brohten him into cyrce mid processionem..ringden þa belle, setten him on þes abbotes settle, diden him ealle hersumnesse.
(The next day, the monks chose an abbot from amongst themselves and brought him into the church with a procession … they rang the bells, they set him on the abbot’s seat, and they did him all homage.)
Naturally, the story doesn’t end here. In the Canons Enacted under King Edgar, dated to 960, we find:
We lǽraþ, ðæt preóstas cirican healdan to godcundre þénunge
(We enjoin that priests keep their churches for divine service.)
Here we can see the plural form cirican, for which the singular was cirice. This came from the West Germanic form *kirika, from Proto-Germanic *kiriko. This in turn is thought to have come from the Greek phrase κυριακή (οικία) [kiriaki (ikia)], which means “Lord’s (house)”.
This can be further traced to κύριος [kirios], which meant “Lord”, from κύρος [kiros], which is thought to have come from Proto Indo European root *keu, which meant “to swell”, probably with the notion that swollen means bigger and therefore stronger and thus in charge.
From “swollen” to “lord” to “church”, this word has trodden a long path!
We can find it in other Germanic languages too, most obviously in German Kirche and Dutch kerk, but also in Norwegian kirke and kyrkja, Swedish kyrkan, Danish kirke and non-Germanic Finnish kirkko. The word used in Scottish and chiefly Northern British English, kirk, is also from this root.
A number of other European languages use another Greek word; εκκλησία [ekklisia], which means “assembly” or “congregation”, and apart from in modern Greek itself, can also be found in Italian chiesa, French église, Spanish iglesia, Welsh eglwys, among others.
An interesting note is that a cognate in Modern Greek is Κυριακή [kiriaki], which translates as “Sunday”, or “Day of the Lord”, which is, of course, the day traditionally reserved for churchgoing!