December 27, 2019
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
As we prepare to welcome in the new year, I thought it might be interesting to look some history behind the word “welcome” itself. (As I write this, the song “Willkommen! Bienvenue! Welcome!” – from Cabaret – keeps repeating itself in my mind.)
Though it may not sound like it, the English word welcome and the Spanish word bienvenidos both come from the same root. They offer an excellent example of how different languages can actually be very similar. Bienvenidos comes from Old French which combines bien (well) and venue (come or coming). Welcome, on the other hand, sounds similar to the German willkommen and means much the same thing. Compounding words is a specialty of the English language, but in both cases, the compound word runs all the way back to the Latin bene (well) and venu (the past participle of venir, to come, from Latin venire).
In English, the first published use of welcome is in Beowulf. When King Hrothgar hears that Beowulf has arrived to offer help, King Hrothgar says, “Go immediately, bid him and the Geats/ he has in attendance to assemble and enter./ Say, moreover, when you speak to them,/ they are welcome in Denmark”*. (The Old English reads: “þæt hie sint wilcuman/ Denigaleo dum.”) Unlike other words from Old English, there is a strong likeness between wilcuman and welcome. When I read ancient texts, like Beowulf, I often wonder, how many of the words had never been written before. Since Beowulf was first penned somewhere between the 8th and 11th centuries, there is a good chance that many of these words had not been printed before. Of “welcome,” The Merriam-Webster dictionary can only guess that its first usage was prior to the 12th century due in large part to the fact that it was first printed in Beowulf.
The website Quora.com explains that the Old English wilcuman has two elements: “wil-” which indicates desire or pleasure and “cuman,” which means come. So, welcome has always meant “it is good you have come,” in the sense of a welcome guest. It shares this same meaning with the Old French bien venu and the Old Norse velkominn.
Furthermore, in a book published in 1891, Introduction to the study of the history of language, Strong, Logeman, and Wheeler note the subtle differences behind the usage of welcome. They write, “The word welcome in such phrases as I made them welcome is employed as an adjective, as, indeed, it is commonly apprehended to be. It was originally a substantive, and was derived from the infinitive mood of the verb, its meaning being pleasure-comer. The word is popularly supposed to derive from well and come; but the first element in the compound is really related to will—the true sense being the will-comer, i.e. he who comes to please another’s will. (Cf. Ger. willkommen.) The change in meaning seems due to Scandinavian influence, for in the Scandinavian languages the word is really composed of the adjective well and the past participle come; cf. Danish velkommen (welcome).”
On a side note, the phrase “you’re welcome” in response to “thank you” is an adaptation of the same phrase in English. It formally recognizes gratitude and is the common response to “thank you.” It is another way of saying, “it was a pleasure to help you.” The inclusion of this new phrase, however, does not transmit to other cultures. So, while many cultures say welcome as a form of greeting, they do not necessarily adopt the formal response of “you’re welcome.”
Whatever the true etymology of the world welcome, we wish you a wonderful year. May 2020 bring welcome news, welcome surprises and welcome wonders. Welcome to 2020!
* Seamus Heaney’s translation, page 27
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