The word "forgive" comes from the Old English forgiefan, which ultimately comes from concatenating the words meaning "for" and "give," according to Google. But what do those two words mean? The stem for according to Etymonline, means "completely" while giefan means "to give." According to the same site, more nuanced meanings include "grant; allow; remit a debt; pardon an offense; give up; and give in marriage." I recognize "remit a debt" and "pardon an offense" as the two usages most familiar in today's speech. Spenser uses the word once in the sense of "to give wholly" in Canto IX of The Faerie Queen, though every other use of that word in the poem is used in the sense of "to pardon."

There are not too many English phrases which use the word "forgive." One that comes to mind, however, "to forgive and forget," which apparently came about in the 1300's, is quite interesting to me – if you split those words apart, you have "for-give" and "for-get"; and giving is (presumably) the opposite of getting, though 'taking' would be a closer approximation of the opposite meaning. However, going back to Etymonline, that site points out that the ultimate source of giefan "to give" is probably the equivalent of the proto-Indo-European root *ghabh- or *ghebh-, which is supposed to mean "to give or receive," the idea being that it represents holding something in your hand. Now we don't know the actual proto Indo-European language – this is what the asterisks mean when you see such roots listed in sources – instead linguists attempt to recreate the language given what they know about how languages evolve, and thus I usually don't consider those guesses when thinking about the meanings of words. In this case, however, I am struck by the coincidence that the root for 'give' blends the concept of giving with that of receiving, as if doing one were the same as doing the other. I call it a coincidence because with respect to the "forget" part of the "forgive and forget" phrase, "forget" comes from gietan, "to grasp" as opposed to giefan, "to give," and it turns out that the guessed proto Indo-European root is a different one - *ghend-, "to take." "Forgive" and "forget," then, are represented by different roots – assuming the guesses of linguists are accurate – and so the double meaning of the "forgive" root (to give or receive) is not related to the phrase "forgive and forget."

David Phillips points out that both Shakespeare (in King Lear) and Cervantes (in Don Quixote) use the phrase but in the opposite order – "forget and forgive." I wonder at what point the order flipped, and why? I could speculate that it makes more sense to forgive a person first, and then to forget the damage caused by that person, because if you went in the other direction, i.e., forgetting the damage first, then you shouldn't be able to remember why you would forgive the person in the first place; but these sorts of logical explanations don't work very well in questions about language. After all, we commonly say things that don't currently make sense when thought of carefully - many etymologies behind phrases are of this type - and why should this case be any different? In most cases, they made sense at one point back when the nuances behind the words were different, or referred to different concepts altogether. Furthermore, in pondering this question I am assuming that "forgive and forget" is shortened form of "forgive and THEN forget," that is, that the conjunction "and" implies that the first action is performed before the second; but there are many languages in which the conjunction implies that the two activities occurred simultaneously, depending on the surrounding grammar. I have an example of this I believe in ancient Greek, but for the life of me I can no longer find it (eh, forgive me...).

Edward Burnet Tyler studied what he termed "gesture-language" as used in "Deaf and Dumb Institutions" (as he termed them) in Germany and England during the 1800's while working on his book concerning the early history of mankind. There have historically been various dialects of sign language, so the gesture he gives for the word "forgive" is not necessarily equivalent to that used in modern American sign language. In the modern usage, one takes the fingertips of one hand and repeatedly brushes them against the palm of the other. Tyler, however, rather than describing the gesture itself, interprets it, and states that it represents rubbing out, "as from a slate." The context is in the interpretation of the Lord's Prayer ("forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those that trespass against us"). By interpreting it Tyler allows the connotations of the words he uses to influence one's thinking of the origin of the gesture – and I find it interesting that rubbing out "as from a slate" could be interpreted as the forgiving of a debt, as accounting was often done in ancient cultures on clay tablets, which fits with the subject matter of his book. Here, then, we may have a conflation of the two meanings "to remit a debt" and "to pardon an offense," with the two meanings being essentially the same. I also note that children in ancient cultures were educated using clay tablets, such that wiping a tablet clean to reuse it could be akin to forgetting what was previously learned; but all this, of course, is speculation.

Translating phrases from foreign languages using the word "forgive" turns out to be tricky. For example, take the word "ilunga" from the Tshiluba language of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It has been described as "the hardest word to translate." The closest linguists have been able to get as to its meaning is that it is "a person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time."

Translating phrases TO foreign languages using "forgive" can also be tricky. Take Polish for example. In English, we often say "forgive me" in casual speech, such as when interrupting someone : "forgive me, but I was wondering..." If one were to translate that phrase into Polish starting with the word "wybacz" ("forgive me") it will sound very dramatic and possibly sarcastic. Instead you should use the word "przepraszam" ("sorry") which has the right connotation.

Pithy sayings concerning the concept of forgiveness include the following :

"To err is human; to forgive divine." - Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism

"A man's forgiveness may be true and sweet / But yet he stoops to give it." - Adelaide Proctor, "The Ghost in the Picture Room," from The Haunted House

"To forgive is often pride's supremest triumph. To be forgiven may be the offender's bitterest humiliation." - Mark Guy Pearse, Praise : A Series of Meditations in the One Hundred and Third Psalm

Author's Note : this essay will appear in my upcoming book, My Cat Breaks Into Vowels, which is available for pre-order.

Sources :, accessed on 2024-03-18, accessed on 2024-03-18, accessed on 2024-03-18, accessed on 2024-03-18, accessed on 2024-03-19*ghabh-, accessed on 2024-03-19, accessed on 2024-03-19, accessed on 2024-03-19, accessed on 2024-03-19, accessed on 2024-03-19, accessed on 2024-03-19, accessed on 2024-03-20, accessed on 2024-03-20, accessed on 2024-03-20, accessed on 2024-03-20, accessed on 2024-03-20, accessed on 2024-03-20, accessed on 2024-03-20, accessed on 2024-03-20