The Grammarphobia Blog

Winsome evangelism

Q: I’ve noticed that preachers on television and the radio are using “winsome” in a new way—capable of winning people over to Christ. As a curmudgeon, especially about words, I find this new usage highly annoying. Have you encountered it?

A: We hadn’t noticed it before, but “winsome” does seem be used in evangelical circles to mean capable of spreading the Gospel and winning converts to Christ. This usage isn’t all that new, however.

Winsome Evangelism is the title of a book published in 1973 by Ponder W. Gilliland, the author of Witnessing to Win and other books about “multiplying discipleship”—that is, training people to spread the Gospel and gain converts.

Some evangelicals even use a play on words: be winsome to win some (or words to that effect). And many of them use “winsome” itself with a double meaning—one must be pleasant and gracious (that is, winsome) to win some souls.

Are you right to be annoyed by this evangelical usage? Well, it’s not standard English. Dictionaries recognize the first meaning (pleasant and gracious), but not the second (capable of winning).

However, we’re not annoyed. We like a clever play on words. And in this case the usage can even be defended on etymological grounds, if we go back far enough.

Let’s begin by being clear about one thing: the “win” in the adjective “winsome” is not derived from the verb “win”—or vice versa.

The two words—“win” and “winsome—have had separate family trees ever since they entered English. Despite a common prehistoric ancestor, “winsome” has never had anything to do with winning.

“Winsome” entered the language many centuries ago, when it was spelled wynsum. It’s found in Beowulf, which the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology dates to about 725.

In Old English and Middle English, “winsome” meant pleasant, delightful, kindly, or gracious, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

But in general, the word’s modern meaning, which emerged in the 1600s, is pleasing or attractive in one’s appearance, character, disposition, or manners.

“Winsome” is derived from an extremely old noun, originally spelled wyn and later “win,” that first showed up in Beowulf with the meaning of pleasure or delight. (The suffix “-some” is used to create adjectives from nouns.)

That old noun is long dead now, but it survived into the 17th century, when it appeared in benedictory phrases like “God give thee win,” according to OED citations.

This defunct noun came into English from old Germanic sources. Its English relatives include “wish” and “wine,” an obsolete word for a friend or protector (it’s unrelated to the drink, and was an element in old names like Eadwine, now Edwin).

In Old English, wyn was also a word element in poetical compounds such as wynland (pleasant land) and wynbeam (tree of joy).

And the element wyn showed up briefly as a separate adjective in Middle English, where the OED says it appeared only in verse and meant delightful or pleasant.

As for the familiar verb “win” (to obtain, succeed, overcome, or gain a victory), it has a quite different history. It’s also Germanic in origin, and was first recorded in Old English (as wynnan) in the 800s.

Originally, to “win” was to work or labor, but it also meant to strive, contend, or fight, the OED says. Most of the modern meanings—to seize or obtain, to be victorious, to overcome an adversary, and others—emerged in the 12th through 14th centuries.

As we’ve said, “winsome” has never had anything to do with winning on a literal level. However, the verb “win” has had a touch of winsomeness.

In the 14th century, the OED says, the verb developed a new meaning: “to overcome the unwillingness or indifference of.”

The new sense, Oxford explains, was used “with various shades of meaning: to attract, allure, entice; to prevail upon, persuade, induce; to gain the affection or allegiance of; to bring over to one’s side, party, or cause, to convert.” (Note the mention of “convert”!)

This meaning of the verb “win” gave us the adjective “winning” in the late 16th century. It originally meant persuasive, the OED explains, but now means alluring or attractive. Not so very dissimilar from “winsome,” is it?

Here’s an example from Benjamin H. Malkin’s 1809 translation of Alain-René Lesage’s Adventures of Gil Blas: “You have very winning ways with you; you make me do just whatever you please.”

And this later example comes from Mark Twain’s A Tramp Abroad (1880): “There is a friendly something about the German character which is very winning.”

Taking all this into account, one would think that there has to be a connection between the adjective “winning” (from the verb “win”) and the adjective “winsome” (from the noun “win,” meaning pleasure or delight). And in fact there is, as we hinted above.

The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (2nd ed.) says the prehistoric ancestor of the verb “win” and of the “win” in “winsome” are the same—a root that’s been reconstructed as wen-.

This root also gave us “wish,” as we mentioned, as well as “wont” (custom or habit), “wean” (originally to accustom or train), and “ween” (an archaic verb meaning think or hope, which survives today in the adjective “overweening”).

American Heritage defines this root as meaning to desire or strive for, and the OED adds another definition: to love. All in all, a winning combination.

Check out our books about the English language