The Grammarphobia Blog

Amen to that

Q: Can you tell me the etymology and original meaning of “amen”?

A: The interjection “amen” comes from the Hebrew amen, meaning truly, surely, or verily, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

The Hebrew word was originally a noun meaning certainty or truth, which in turn came from the verb aman (to strengthen or confirm), the Oxford English Dictionary says.

The OED describes the Hebrew interjection amen “as an expression of affirmation, consent, or ratification of what has been said by another.”

The Modern Hebrew-English Dictionary, by Avraham Zilkha, defines it as “So be it!”

The word amen appears in Hebrew biblical texts, including Deuteronomy and First Kings.

When these texts were translated into Greek and Latin, the translators simply adopted the word amen verbatim.

Early Christians used the Greek and Latin amen “as a solemn expression of belief, affirmation, consent, concurrence, or ratification, of any formal utterance made by a representative,” says the OED.

Thus, according to Oxford, it was used “with prayers, imprecations, confessions of faith.”

The word later entered English around the 10th century. But it was used with less solemnity at times, even in the Bible.

In some cases, the OED says, it was added as “a concluding formula,” much like “finis,” to books of the New Testament.

The word “amen” has entirely secular uses in English as well.

“In non-religious contexts,” the OED says, the word is used to express “approval, concurrence, or relief, usually as a concluding response to the statement of another: ‘quite right’; ‘I couldn’t agree more’; ‘I very much hope so.’ ”

This sense of the word is often heard in the phrase “amen to that,” which has been used in English speech since Shakespeare’s time.

Here’s how the expression was used by Charles Dickens in The Pickwick Papers (1837):

“ ‘Ah, I wish they had the reward that every kind and generous heart would be inclined to bestow upon them!’ said the gratified Mrs. Bardell. ‘Amen to that’’ replied Sam, ‘and a fat and happy livin’ they’d get out of it!’ ”

And here it is in an Agatha Christie whodunit, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920):

“ ‘We do hope, if there has been foul play, to bring the murderer to justice.’ ‘Amen to that,’ said Dorcas fiercely.”

Check out our books about the English language