The Grammarphobia Blog

Keeping the faith

Q: Could you tell us about the history of the word “faith” and its use in US politics. I have complete faith that you can deliver the truth.

A: “Faith” is a noble old word. Old because it goes back eight centuries, and noble because it means belief, confidence, reliance, trust, loyalty, allegiance, fidelity.

The word was adopted into Middle English in about 1250, according to The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology. It was originally spelled “feth” or “feith” and was borrowed, as many words were in those days, from Old French (feit or feid), which ultimately got it from the Latin fides (trust).

The Latin fides, by the way, has given us a whole family of words including “confide” and “confidence,” “defy,” “diffident” (which originally meant distrustful, not shy), “fealty,” “fidelity,” “fiduciary,” “perfidy,” and (no kidding!) “federal”!

It has also given us expressions like “bona fides” (good faith) and “auto-da-fé” (act of faith). The term “auto-da-fé” became a notorious expression during the Inquisition, when it was used to refer to the sentencing of an “infidel” and his subsequent burning at the stake.

At first “faith” referred principally to religious faith, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, but the word’s meaning eventually widened to include broader usages, as in the adjectival phrase “faith-based,” which we hear so much these days.

Draft additions to the OED in 2007 show that “faith-based” dates back, believe it or not, to 1874. The dictionary says the phrase is chiefly American and means “(a) based on religious faith; (b) designating or relating to a charitable institution, social program, etc., created or managed by a religious organization.”

The first citation for this usage in the OED is from a poem by John Henry Vosburg: All God’s gifts are free, and hope is real, / Faith-based, to those who will not think, but feel.

The expression may have lain dormant for another hundred years, because the next citation in the OED is from a piece of literary criticism in 1972: “Ahab equates fear with orthodox belief, the faith-based laws of which he defies.”

Next comes a 1986 mention in a newspaper: “Witness for Peace is a grassroots, non-violent, faith-based movement committed to changing U.S. policy toward Nicaragua.” And then we have a citation from Newsweek in June 1998: “Congress … has swung behind a series of policy changes … which allow federal, state and local funds to flow to faith-based anti-poverty groups.”

There’s some irony, I think, in the fact that the same Latin word, fides, gave us both “faith” and “federal.” According to a recent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, “The United States has a long tradition of separating church from state, yet a powerful inclination to mix religion and politics.”

This inclination must be behind the rapid spread of the term “faith-based,” which has become a ubiquitous expression in politics, government, and nearly all facets of public life.

As for your faith in me, I hope it’s been justified.

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