The Grammarphobia Blog

Believe it or not

Q: I was fascinated to learn from your posting on “amen” that this affirmation was originally a verb meaning to confirm. Similarly, I’ve heard that the noun “belief” was originally a verb meaning to know.

A: The word “belief” originally meant trust or faith or confidence in something, but it has evolved into a different meaning: the mental acceptance of something as true.

As far as we can tell, however, the noun “belief” has never meant knowledge, just as the verb “believe” has never meant to know.

Nevertheless, we believe that you may be interested in some unusual characteristics of the noun “belief.”

The prefix “be-,” for example, is not a natural part of English nouns. So how did it end up attached to “belief”?

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the prefix was added to the Old English noun leafa, influenced by the verb, where “be-” functions as an intensifier.

Another interesting point is that the noun and the verb had similar-sounding endings for a time.

The two parted ways in the 16th century, when the noun changed from “beleeve” to “beleefe,” probably influenced by pairs like “grieve”/“grief” and “prove”/“proof.”

“Belief” was first written as leafa (or geleafa) in Old English in the 10th century, and meant faith or trust.

It came into English from old Germanic languages, but it can be traced ultimately to prehistoric times and the ancient Indo-European root leubh.

This same Indo-European root also gave us the word “love.”

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