As Palm Sunday is coming up, I thought a post on the etymology of the word palm was in order. I was originally only going to look up the word palm, but I came across palmy and decided it needed to be added as well. Yes, palmy is a word – a word coined by Shakespeare no less. But how did he get a hold of the word? After all, there are no palm trees in England. Instead, as many English words do, the word palm comes from Latin. Palma meant a “palm of the hand” and came to mean a “palm tree”, as the fronds of the palm tree appear like an outstretched hand. This word was eventually adopted by Old French, Old English, Old Saxon, Old High German, and Old Norse. But how did it get there? And what does it mean?
The palm made its way through Europe not in form but in metaphor. As Christianity was carried through Europe, and eventually to the Isles, so too was the word palm. Palms were plentiful in the Middle East and the word was included in the Bible, mentioned in various Christian writings, and adopted in the languages it encountered. In fact, Chaucer used this word in his Canterbury Tales, within the ‘Second Nun’s Tale’, referring to the “palm of martyrdom”. It was Chaucer who started the path to the eventual word palmy; his usage meant more than a tree or hand but victory. Shakespeare then took the victory-filled word palm and morphed it into palmy, meaning “triumphant”, in his Hamlet. Strictly speaking, the word means “full of palms”. But as the palm was a symbol for victory, full of palms means “triumphant”.
But why did the palm change from a plant to a praise? Well, the reason this word came to these languages through Christianity is because of the account associated with palms: Palm Sunday. In Old English, this day was called palm-sunnandaeg. On this palmy day, Christians celebrate the triumphal entry of Christ into Jerusalem, oftentimes even giving palm fronds to everyone in the Church that day (John 12:12-16). But why was Christ’s entrance triumphant? Jesus did not come in riding on a horse of war or with intentions of taking back Israel from Rome. No, instead the Christ was ridding to Jerusalem with the knowledge that He would die there on Passover. How was this triumphant? It was triumphant because with His sacrifice and Resurrection, He would defeat death. Thus, because of the day when palms were cut to welcome and praise in the King of kings, who triumphed over death, the word palmy was born “triumphant”.
Blessings to you and yours,
“palm“. The Online Etymology Dictionary.
“palmy“. The Online Etymology Dictionary.
“palmy“. Merriam Webster Dictionary.