The Grammarphobia Blog

Is “hearsay” a cousin of “heresy”?

Q: I wonder if there’s a connection between the words “hearsay” and “heresy,” or is the similarity just a coincidence?

A: The nouns “hearsay” and “heresy” come from very different sources and are not related.

“Hearsay” was first recorded in writing in 1532, and is described by the Oxford English Dictionary as a substitute use of the phrase “to hear say,” which in turn was in use before the year 1000.

The OED defines “hearsay” this way: “That which one hears or has heard some one say; information received by word of mouth, usually with implication that it is not trustworthy; oral tidings; report, tradition, rumour, common talk, gossip.”

The roots of the noun, the verbs “hear” and “say,” go back to Old English and have their origins in ancient Germanic sources.

The noun “heresy,”  on the other hand, is from Greek.

It was borrowed into English, probably before 1200, from the Old French word eresie or heresie, an adaptation of the Latin haeresis, which comes from the Greek hairesis.

The meaning in the classical languages was broader than in English and referred to a taking, a choosing, a school of thought, a set of philosophical principles.

The English “heresy” is defined by the OED as “theological or religious opinion or doctrine maintained in opposition, or held to be contrary, to the ‘catholic’ or orthodox doctrine of the Christian Church, or, by extension, to that of any church, creed, or religious system, considered as orthodox.”

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