The Grammarphobia Blog

Waking the dead

Q: What is the origin of the word “wake,” as in “I am going to his wake tonight” or “He is going to be waked”?

A: The modern verb “wake” comes from two Old English words, “wacan” (to become awake) and “wacian” (to be or remain awake), according to The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology and the Dictionary of Word Origins by John Ayto. These two words eventually became “waken” and “wakien,” respectively, then fused into our modern verb “wake.”

This sense of “wake” (to awake or stay awake) also gave rise to related words having to do with guarding (“watch,” “vigil”). “Vigil” is related to the Old Icelandic word vaka, which is a noun meaning the eve before a feast or festival (when people often prayed all night), and also a verb meaning to be awake.

This “guarding” and “watching” angle is what gives us the sense of “wake” as a vigil or watch kept over a dead body. By extension, the dead person is said to be “waked.” The transitive verb “wake,” meaning to hold a wake over someone (that is, to “wake” him), goes back to the 1300s.

Interestingly, the phrase “to wake the dead” now has two distinct meanings in English—to be so noisy as to wake up the dead (a modern interpretation), and to hold a wake over the deceased (the traditional sense).

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