Final Word

The family of Gospel, Bonus and Bribery


We are once again in that time of the year that is the highlight of the Christian calendar, popularly known as Christmas time. We are supposed to celebrate the nativity of Jesus Christ, but it became contaminated with some suspect practices.

It is also the time of the year that, over the millenniums, became associated with not only the holy day of Christmas but with what we five years ago called the “unholy holidays”.  The term ‘holiday’ comes from the Old English hāligdæg, indicating religious festivals – the only days in ancient times that ordinary people did not have to work.

In more recent times it is, however, also the time of the year when working people receive their annual bonus over and above their normal salary or remuneration – often called a ‘Christmas bonus’.

My story for this week’s column, however, started with the news that eleven senior executives at the state-owned Petro SA were paid more than R17 million in bonuses, despite the company’s losses of more than R14 billion. At the same time, ordinary staff members were told that they would not be receiving bonuses for a second consecutive year.  

Now keep in mind that the dictionary definition of ‘bonus’ reads: “… something given or paid over and above what is due.”

The legal definition is: “Wages paid in addition to the compensation ordinarily given or required under an employment contract. A bonus is payment for services (such as for recognition of exceptional work performance) or on consideration, and is neither gift nor gratuity; and anything given or provided for free in addition to what is usual, agreed to, or legally due.”

The root of the word is the Latin word bona, meaning ‘good’, which takes us closer to ‘Gospel’, the first member of the ‘family’ identified in the heading to this column.

It’s all Greek

If you, at this stage think “it’s all Greek to me”, you will not be far off the mark.

In Latin the words bona adnuntiatio or sometimes bonus nuntius were used to translate the Greek word εὐαγγέλιον (euangelion), meaning ‘good news’ or ‘good story’.

The etymological lineage of ‘gospel’ is relatively simple and straightforward. In Old English the word ‘good’ was spelled with a single ‘o’ as in ‘god’. The word ‘spell’ meant a ‘story’ or an ‘account’.

The term for a good story in Old English was ‘godspell’. The ‘-spell’ component of the word meaning ‘a story’ continued into the modern era, but fell out of use in the seventeenth century.

The sense of being a set of words that one could speak and have a magical effect (a magical spell or charm) arose in the sixteenth century and prevails to this day.

‘Godspell’, although a compound of the two Germanic words ‘god’ (good) and ‘spell’, is really a calque or loan translation of the Latin bona adnuntiatio or bonus nuntius, which in turn is a calque of Greek’s euangelion – which also gave us ‘evangel’ and related words like ‘evangelism’.

The ‘d’ disappeared in most texts and became ‘gospell’ towards the end of the thirteenth century. Although some later texts, notably the C text of Langland’s poem “Piers Plowman”, continued to use the older spelling, most texts after 1300 dropped the ‘d’.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary ‘godspell’ soon passed “from English to continental Germanic languages in forms that clearly indicate the first element had shifted to ‘God’ such as Old Saxon godspell, Old High German gotspell, Old Norse goðspiall. Used of anything as true as the Gospel from mid-13c.; as ‘any doctrine maintained as of exclusive importance’ from 1650s. As an adjective from 1640s. Gospel music is by 1955.”

Finally, some ‘bonus’ information

During this festive season of the Gospel, one will do well to remember that the devil never takes a holiday. There just might be some law enforcers who regard it as a time for bonuses for looking the other way when people are speeding on the road or to smooth the way around some or other regulation.

It is no accident that ‘bonus’ is also a British slang word for a ‘bribe’.

by Piet Coetzer

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