Where does the word “charity” come from and What does charity mean?

Saint Jerome, who translated the New Testament into Latin in the fourth century, sought to avoid the use of the ordinary Latin word for “love,” amor, because of the distinctly worldly associations attached to that word.

It did not agree with his interpretation of agape, in the original Greek, which denotes more nearly brotherly love or the deep affection between close friends. So he substituted, wherever the Greek text would naturally have required amor, one or another rather colorless word, one of them being caritas.

Its meaning is “dearness,” but, being colorless, it was capable of taking the color of its biblical surroundings and thus came to mean, specifically, Christian love of one’s neighbor, and especially of the poor.

The English word charity, derived from it, perhaps owes its sense particularly to the great passage in I Corinthians, chapter 13, which begins:

“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.”

About Karen Hill

Karen Hill is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist. Born in New York, her work has appeared in the Examiner, Yahoo News, Buzzfeed, among others.

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