Saint Agnes by Italian Baroque painter,

Domenico Zampieri or Domenichino, 1581-1641

  At the Wording Desk

Increase your English Vocabulary & your Understanding of How Words Work

Bill Casselman

The Girls’ Name Agnes does NOT Mean 'Lamb.'
 
The girls’ name Agnes does not derive from agnus, the Latin word for ‘lamb,’ as in one biblical Latin name for Jesus, Agnus Dei ‘the lamb of God.’

This is a very common mistake in the supposed origin of the feminine given name Agnes. Agnes is not derived from the Latin word for lamb, agnus. Agnes as a girl’s name is from a Greek adjective ‘Αγνη Hagne, masculine form ‘αγνος hagnos ‘pure, chaste, sexually pure, virginal,’ and its developed meaning of ‘ready for participation in ritual and religious ceremony because the male or female is not contaminated, is different from the impure masses who are stained by sin and bad actions.’

Although hagnos in Greek may be related to Greek hagios ‘holy,’ the prime and sensuous meaning of hagnos is ‘set apart, different.’

 Very early in the Middle Ages Agnes was confused with Agnus and so the girl’s given name was falsely derived from Latin agnus. Vast multitudes of European women were named Agnes, Aggie, Nancy, Annice, Annis, Inez, Agnetha (Swedish), Nes and Neske (Dutch), Agnieszka (Polish), Nest and Nesta (Welsh) and other forms in dozens of world languages.

Saint Agnes was a virgin martyred during the persecutions of the Roman emperor Diocletian. Due to similarity, Agnes became associated with Latin agnus ‘lamb,’ resulting in the frequent medieval depiction of Saint Agnes sitting with a lamb. See the painting below.


Saint Agnes is the patron saint of chastity, of girls, of engaged couples and of survivors of sexual abuse. Agnes is also patron saint of women who choose to remain virgins and so beloved of all females who enter holy orders to become nuns. Saint Agnes was thus very popular with medieval women and so they gave her name to their daughters in great numbers, and Agnes became common in Christian Europe, especially in England in the Middle Ages.

Agnus Dei
In the Roman Catholic mass, when the communal bread is broken (called in Latin Fractio panis) the Agnus Dei is spoken or sung. It is drawn from the New Testament, from John 1:29 where John the Baptist says “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” In Saint Jerome’s Latin translation of the New Testament Greek, that reads “Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi.”

The actual Latin text is:
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.


Translation:
Lamb of God, you who take away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.
Lamb of God, you who take away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.
Lamb of God, you who take away the sins of the world, grant us peace.




Bill Casselman

April 04, 2016

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