The English and German languages stand alone in Europe in having words for that most important of Christian festivals, Easter, which are completely pagan in origin.
The English word Easter corresponds to German Ostern. Both forms derive from the name of the pagan Germanic goddess of spring, Eastre. Her name is probably related to the English word east (German Ost), which connects her to dawn and to the rising of the sun. (The Nordic word for Christmas, jul, English yule, is similarly of pagan Germanic origin.)
In his book Language and History in the Early Germanic World, Professor DH Green describes how, after the conversion of the different Germanic tribes to Christianity, a contrast developed between those who discarded terms associated with the now-despised pagan religions, and those who saw no harm in recycling those terms for the promotion of Christianity. The Germanic tribes in south-eastern Europe, where varieties of Gothic were spoken, had a low pagan-vocabulary retention rate, while Old English speakers in the north-west retained more originally pagan forms.
This was due to a number of attitudinal and historical factors, including the dates when the tribes were converted to Christianity – the Goths in the years before AD400, and the Anglo-Saxons only in the 600s. It was also tied up with the different theologies of the Eastern and Western Christian churches.
All the other languages of the continent have words for this important festival which are less obviously pagan. In the western part of Europe, the terms derive from Aramaic, the language of Christ and his disciples (TNE #322) – and specifically from the word for the Jewish celebration of Passover, which also takes place in the springtime, commemorating the Hebrews’ liberation from slavery in Egypt. The Aramaic word is transliterated into the Latin alphabet as pasxa or pascha. It was borrowed from Aramaic into Ancient Greek, and from there to other European languages, including most of the Germanic tongues: the modern Nordic languages all use variants of påske; and the Frisian languages (which are the languages most closely related to English, apart from Scots) have forms such as poosche, poask, and paoske; and Scots itself has the word pace, as in “pace-egg”.
The Romance languages also have Aramaic-derived words such as pâques (French), páscoa (Portuguese), pascua (Spanish) and pasqua (Italian). The Welsh word is pasg. Albanian has pashkë.
But if we travel further east in Europe, different sources of the word for Easter come into play. Several languages use terms that refer to the fact that Easter marks the conclusion of the Lenten fasting period. The meaning of Hungarian húsvéti derives from “the taking of meat”, as does the Estonian lihavõtted. And Finnish pääsiäinen refers to “liberation” – that is, release from the prohibitions associated with Lent.
In many Slavic languages, the word for Easter simply refers to the importance of the festival. Czech velikonoční and Polish wielkanoc both mean “great night”. The Ukrainian version velykden translates as “great day”, as does the word for Easter in the Baltic language Lithuanian, velykos. Latvian lieldienas similarly signifies “big days”.
An odd one out here is the word for Easter in Serbian/Bosnian/Croatian – vaskrs – which comes from the word for “resurrection”, which is perhaps the closest reflection of all of what Easter is supposed to be all about.
Prohibition, from prohibit, has its origin in Latin prohibere “to forbid”. This is composed of pro “from”, plus habere “to have, hold”. Other words with similar origins, including the change from habere to hibere, are exhibit “to show”, and inhibit “to restrain”. The rare word cohibit means the roughly same thing as inhibit.