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The Etymology of 'Easter' and 'Passover'

“Passover” comes from the Hebrew word “pesach,” which means to pass or spring over. In most European languages, the word for “Easter” also has this root. 

By
Samantha Enslen, Writing for,
A Passover montage with Easter colors to represent that the two holidays are related

Most of you probably have a basic understanding of the Easter and Passover holidays, but I’ll give you a quick summary before we get to the language part.

Easter is a Christian holiday that celebrates the day that Jesus, known as the son of God in the Christian faith, was said to be resurrected from the dead. It’s Christianity’s oldest festival, and it’s observed on the Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox

Passover is a Jewish holiday that celebrates the Jewish people’s liberation from slavery in ancient Egypt. It also recognizes the night that God was said to “pass over” Jewish homes and spare them from a plague that killed all other firstborn children. Passover lasts seven or eight days, depending on where it’s being celebrated. It begins on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Nisan, which falls during late March and early April.

What many people may not know about these two holidays is that they have a related linguistic history — at least in some languages.

Let me explain.   

Most words for Easter come from the Hebrew word for Passover

“Passover” comes from the Hebrew word “pesach,” which means to pass or spring over. And in most European languages, the word for “Easter” also has this root. 

For example, the French word for Easter is “Pâques.” The Dutch word is “Pasen.” The Turkish word is “Paskalya.” And the Spanish expression is “Pascua de Resurrección.”

Why is Easter so closely associated with Passover? Because Jesus was a Jewish person. His last meal — what Christians call the “Last Supper” — was a Passover celebration. Jesus was executed during Passover week, and he was said to come back to life three days later. 

In fact, early Christians celebrated Easter on the same day as Passover, regardless what day of the week it fell on. Nowadays, it’s always celebrated on a Sunday. This change came after about 300 years of controversy that rocked the church hierarchy. Sometime in the 1600s, the leaders finally decided that, yeah, Sunday would be the big day. 

The English and German Words for Easter Have a Different Root

In contrast to most European languages, English and German have a different root word for “Easter,” which is called “Ostern” in German. And the root word is a little less certain. 

One theory was suggested by the 7th-century scholar Bede. He stated that Easter was named after a pagan goddess of the dawn, Eostre, whose festival was celebrated around the spring equinox. That’s an awesome and logical story, especially because we know that early Christians did try to merge many pagan holidays and rituals into Christianity. 

But, it’s probably not true. Historians haven’t found any other sources that support this idea. 

It’s more likely that “Easter” came from the Old Germanic word “oster,” meaning “East,” which in turn came from the classical Latin word “aurora,” meaning dawn. The concept seems to be that Jesus rose from his tomb at dawn … just like the sun rises from the east at dawn. 

Seems like a bit of a stretch, but it’s the best etymological explanation we’ve got.

The Slavic Languages Call Easter 'Great Day' or 'Great Night'

Interestingly enough, there’s yet a third variation on what Easter is called around the world. In most Slavic languages, Easter is known as the “Great Day” or “Great Night.” In Bulgarian, for example, it’s called “Vělikděn,” the Great Day. In Slovak, it’s “Veľká Noc,” the Great Night.

In yet a fourth variation, some languages use the direct translation of “resurrection” or “resurrection festival” to mean Easter. These include Bosnian, Chinese, Croatian, and Korean. 

Capitalize These Holidays, but Not All Adjacent Words

Finally, remember that since “Easter” and “Passover” are holidays, you capitalize them. You’d also capitalize related holy days, such as Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, Sukkot, and Hoshanah Rabbah. 

However, you don’t capitalize words that fall next to these days. For example, if you wrote about an “Easter service,” you’d lowercase the “s” in “service.” If you wrote about the “Passover festival,” you’d lowercase the “f” in “festival.” And so on.

So, that’s our discussion for today. The word for “Easter” in most European languages comes from the Hebrew word “pesach,” which means Passover. The two words have a shared etymology, and an intertwined history. 

And if you’re celebrating, we hope you have a lovely holiday.

Samantha Enslen runs Dragonfly Editorial. You can find her at dragonflyeditorial.com or @DragonflyEdit.

About the Author

Samantha Enslen, Writing for Grammar Girl

Samantha Enslen is an award-winning writer who has worked in publishing for more than 20 years. She runs Dragonfly Editorial, an agency that provides copywriting, editing, and design for scientific, medical, technical, and corporate materials. Sam is the vice president of ACES, The Society for Editing, and is the managing editor of Tracking Changes, ACES' quarterly journal.

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