The Easter weekend is upon us, so we’ve turned our literary sights to those words with an Easter connection. Got your eggs and your hot cross buns at the ready? Then why not sit back, have a bite to eat, and gorge yourself on these literary facts.
Let’s start, obviously, with Easter itself. The word comes from a Germanic word that is probably cognate with ‘east’, and therefore with ‘dawn’ (with the sun rising at dawn in the east) – thus pointing to the spirit of new beginnings which Easter represents. (Indeed, as well as ‘easterly’, there is also the word Easterly which means ‘of or relating to Easter’.) Bede, in the early eighth century, was the first person to mention the theory that ‘Eostre’, from the same linguistic origin, was a pagan fertility goddess (a theory that is widely rejected). However, Easter obviously does draw on earlier rituals of rebirth and new life celebrated during the spring season, so the link between ‘Easter’ and ‘east’ (and therefore the new beginnings heralded symbolically as well as literally by the dawn) is significant.
If you’re partaking of seasonal snacks this Easter, you’ll doubtless be gorging on an Easter egg or two. The earliest reference to Easter eggs in English is in the work of the Scottish reformer John Knox, in around 1572. The other, more modern sense of Easter egg, namely ‘An unexpected or undocumented message or feature hidden in a piece of software, intended as a joke or bonus’ (Oxford English Dictionary), dates from 1986 and is probably most familiar in the context of DVDs, where a hidden bonus feature is included on the disc alongside the film or television series.
What’s interesting about hot cross buns is that although they are traditionally eaten hot, they’re now probably just as often eaten cold. Yet ‘hot cross bun’ is the name that has won out over the alternative cross-bun (both terms are first found in print from 1733).
If you’re celebrating Easter, you might say you’re Eastering, in which case you have to go back to Benjamin Disraeli, novelist and Prime Minister of Britain, and a letter of his from April 1838 which the dictionary provides as the inaugural use of that term.
The phrase Easter Rising is now used almost exclusively to refer to the events of Easter 1916 in Dublin, which were written about by supporter of Irish independence, WB Yeats, in his poem ‘Easter, 1916‘. But ‘Easter Rising’ had been used before this to refer to Christ’s resurrection from the dead (where ‘Rising’ obviously carried a somewhat different meaning); the OED records its appearance in a book of hymns from 1871.
The Easter bunny, meanwhile, is first referred to in an article of 1900, though references to the earlier Easter hare date from the mid-nineteenth century: the first known instance is in 1851 in Charles Dickens’s periodical Household Words.
However, did you know that easter (with no capital) is another word for the hearth or ‘the back of a chimney or fireplace’? It dates from the fifteenth century, but is now obsolete. But it’s nice to know about all the same, as you’re gathered around the easter this Easter, whether gorging yourself on Easter eggs or Eastering in some other fashion. Have a good weekend, whatever you do – we’re off to make ours an interesting and literary one.