Unde malum?

et quaerebam unde malum, et male quaerebam
and I was searching for where the sin comes from,
but in vain I searched for it

Saint Augustine: Confessions, 7.5.7

The very first morning of the twentieth century found Sándor Kégl at his writing desk in the mansion of Szentkirálypuszta. Although he usually began the day by learning languages, now he wanted to write before all a letter to his master and friend, professor Ignác Goldziher, the founder of modern Islamic studies, so it could go away with the morning post. The haste was probably the reason that instead of the usual letters of two-three pages now he only wrote one single phrase on the back of a postcard, the etymology of one word, probably in response to a question of Goldziher. In an ominous way, as if he foresaw the developments of the following hundred years, he opened the new century with the analysis of the word “sin”.


1 January 1900.
Deeply revered Sir Professor!
The older forms of ڭناه are, according to Horn: “g. venāh skr. vināça – das Verlorengehen, Vernichtung, Untergang (vi+√nas) phlv. v(i) nāskār, v(i) nāskārīh arm. L.W. vnas, vnaskar L.W. kurd gunāh Sünde bel. gunās” (p. 208)
Sincerely yours
Dr. Sándor Kégl


The etymology quoted from Paul Horn’s Grundriss der neupersischen Etymologie (1893) was originally an explanation of the origin of the Persian گناه gunāh, “sin”. However, Kégl wrote the word with three dots on the beginning gef, in the form of ڭناه, and as this letter existed only in Ottoman Turkish – until Turkey in 1928 officially embraced Latin script –, so it is obvious that he informed Goldziher about the origin of Turkish günah, “sin”, a Persian loanword.

With European eyes, this etymology is very interesting. In European languages sin is actively committed – committere peccatum –, while the Indo-Iranian versions, beginning with Sanskrit, come from the concept of loss, destruction, devastation, as if sin inherently were an Un-tät – as German still says it –, a negative action, which does not require punishment, since it carries it a priori in itself. Significantly, “punishment”, which in European languages is also an active action, according to its Latin etymology coming from the same Indo-European root *vinā- just means to name the sin – vin+dicere, vindicta, vindex – because what could be more punishment for the sin than that it is what it is?

Despite this difference, it seems that in a number of European languages the name of sin comes from this same root. One immediately thinks of Russian вина, which is almost identical with the Sanskrit word. However, Max Vasmer’s authoritative Russisches etymologisches Wörterbuch (1953) sees no connection between them, and even explicitly rejects its derivation from Iranian *vināh, ultimately considering it a word of unknown origin. At the same time he links it to another Ancient Indian word, vēti, meaning “to chase” and giving origin to война, “war”, with which sin, if not etymologically, but essentially has much to do.

The sounding of English sin, German Sünde and of their other Germanic equivalents also suggests a relationship with *vinā-. The respective etymological dictionaries, however, reject it, just like Vasmer does. They either derive it from the substantive verb sein (“its guiltiness being established”) like the English etymological dictionary of Klein (1966), or from its Latin equivalent sōns like Kluge’s German dictionary (1891, unfortunately I do not have its modern edition at hand), or they simply consider it of unknown origin, like the Deutsche Enzyklopädie.

About Hungarian “bűn” one would think that, similarly to so many ecclesiastical terms, was taken over from Slavic, from some of the vina’s listed by Vasmer, for even in the 14th and 15th century it was written as bin-. However, the bulky Hungarian etymological dictionary (TESz, 1976), similarly to its foreign colleagues, claims it to be of unknown origin. It only specifies that its Turkish origin is not probable, but as we have already seen, this stipulation is an inevitable ceterum censeo of TESz.

Curiously enough, even the non-Indo-European Arabic language has a similar term for sin: چناح junāh. For a long time this has also been considered as of unknown origin. Today, however, this is the only word that can boast of a success story in the swamp of sin. The foreign vocabulary of the Qur'ān (Arthur Jeffrey et al, Brill, 2007) points it out that it was taken over from the same Persian gunāh which was also Sándor Kégl’s point of departure

The Oriental question, including Arabic, Turkish and the Indo-Iranian branch, has been thus resolved. In Europe, however, where almost all languages, except for the Romance ones, regard their word for “sin” as of unknown origin, until today there is no answer for the question arching from Tertullian through Augustine and Boëthius to Czesław Miłosz: unde malum?