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‘Atonement” is an English word to which I had never given much thought. In fact, I had thought about it so little that I had always assumed that the possibility of reading it as “at-one-ment” was merely a kind of pun having nothing to do with its original meaning. It’s embarrassing to find out, therefore, that “at-one-ment,” now that I’ve finally taken the trouble to check it, is the original meaning of the word.

Why should the process of becoming one with someone or something have come to denote in English what atonement means today — namely, making amends or reparation for a mistake or sin? This is not a difficult process to reconstruct. To be “at one” in the sense of to be “in harmony” or “in concord” is an English idiom going back at least to the late 13th century, and “to at-one” as a transitive verb meaning “to achieve a state of at-oneness, or reconciliation, between two parties” first crops up in English in the late 16th century. (By the 15th century, the English word for the first cardinal number — “on,” “oon” or “uon” — had already acquired its initial “w” sound, so that this verb was in those days pronounced “to atwun.”) Thus, for instance, in the opening scene of Shakespeare’s “Richard the Second,” written in 1597, Richard, failing to reconcile the two feuding noblemen, the Duke of Hereford and the Duke of Norfolk, orders them to fight a duel:

We were not born to sue, but to command:
Which since we cannot do to make you friends,
Be ready, as your lives shall answer it,
At Coventry, upon Saint Lambert’s day;
There shall your swords and lances arbitrate
The swelling difference of your settled hate:
Since we cannot atone you, we shall see
Justice design the victor’s chivalry.

Earlier in the 16th century, we find the noun “atonement” used in the same sense. Once again, Shakespeare can serve as an example. In “Richard the Third,” we find the Duke of Buckingham saying about Richard to the queen, “Ay, madam: he desires to make atonement between the Duke of Gloucester and your brothers.” What Buckingham is telling the queen is that Richard wishes to get her brothers and Gloucester to make up.

To the 16th century, too, can be dated the use of atonement in a religious sense. Here, too, the word originally had the meaning of a mutually arrived “at-oneness” between two parties, as when William Tyndale, in his 1534 New Testament, used it to translate the Greek word kattalagei, “reconciliation,” in the passage from Second Corinthians: “For God… made an agreement between the world and himself, and imputed not their sins unto them; and hath committed to us the preaching of the atonement.” And indeed in New Testament belief, it is not only man who atones for his sins but God who does so, as well, by sacrificing His son Jesus for mankind’s sake. This is the “vicarious atonement” of Christian theology.

In Judaism, on the other hand, atonement is a one-sided affair: It is not something that God does, only man. Nevertheless, when Tyndale translated the Hebrew Bible in the same decade as that in which he worked on the New Testament, he chose “day of atonement” to render the Hebrew yom ha-kippurim in the book of Leviticus. In doing so, he departed twice from the wording of the Latin Bible, which translates yom ha-kippurim as dies expiationum. In the first place, whereas he could easily have retained the Latin expiatio as the English word “expiation,” he preferred the new English word “atonement.” And secondly, whereas the Latin follows the Hebrew, which says yom ha-kippurim, “the day of atonements,” rather than yom kippur, “day of atonement,” Tyndale did away with the plural form of “atonements” and used the singular, a choice in which he was followed several generations later by the King James Bible. This is why, to this day, we say in English “Day of Atonement” rather than “Day of Atonements.”

The Bible uses the plural form of yom ha-kippurim because the high priest performed on that day, in the guise of various sacrifices and the dispatching of the scapegoat, multiple atonements himself, for the priestly house, and for the entire people of Israel. The singular form of yom kippur does not occur in the Bible and is a later usage, reflecting the replacement of the high priest by the individual worshipper, whose fasting and prayer are conceived of by Jewish tradition as a single atoning act. In contemporary Israeli Hebrew, both yom kippur and yom ha-kippurim are in use, although the singular form is the more common of the two.

As for the original meanings of “atone” and “atonement” in English, they lingered on until the end of the 17th century and then vanished. From that point on, these two words meant in English solely what they do today.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to [email protected].

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