I was reading an article the other day when a word I have known for most of my life suddenly jumped out at me – as if it was new. The word was forgive. For the first time, I noticed that it was technically a compound word – made up of two independent words: for and give. Unlike most other compound words, however, I just didn’t get it. How did these two words come together to produce the definition of forgive that we know? Okay, fine, I see how give could contribute to the meaning of the word, but it could not stand on its own and for didn’t seem to be doing its part. I was curious enough to do some digging and I thought I’d share the results of said digging with you.


The root of forgive is the Latin word perdonare meaning “to give completely, without reservation”. We also get pardon from this word (that I see!). When perdonare was adopted into the German ancestor of English, it was translated piece-by-piece. ‘Per’ was replaced by ‘for’, and ‘donare’ by ‘giefan’. In this case, ‘for’ was a prefix meaning ‘thoroughly’ and ‘giefan’ meant ‘to give’. Yes, I know, I saw it too. Your mind immediately went to, “Ahhhh. Forgiven.”

So, what we have here is that to forgive is to give thoroughly. But… to give WHAT thoroughly? The Old English term forgiefan simply meant ‘to give up’ or ‘to allow’ – no object stated.

In my experience, open-ended statements are intended to encompass any and all opinions and interpretations. I came to the conclusion, therefore, that the “WHAT?” in my question is whatever needs to be given up in a particular situation. Forgiveness is like a pass/fail course. Did you have those when you were in university? You never saw a grade – it was either a P for pass, or an F for fail. It was that simple. Forgiveness is that simple, and that hard. You either forgive or you don’t. Sure there are in-betweens, but they are often unintentional and stem from believing you have let something go, and then having it all flood in again – complete with every negative emotion and thought you had. What forgiveness is not like, however, is a court of justice. There is no judge or jury telling you whether someone is guilty or not and deciding on a sentence. Quite frankly, it wouldn’t matter if there were because emotions don’t subscribe to rules and expectations. Ask the mother of a murdered child if hearing that her child’s murderer was given a life sentence in any way erased her longing to have her child with her. Ask her if the announcement brought her the joy everyone seemed to expect it would. Let me know what she says.

To forgive we have to give up, not just let go. We have to give up our right to be mad, angry, upset, resentful. We have to give up our need for justice or revenge. We have to give up our tendency towards self-righteousness. We have to give up blame – whether directed outwardly or inwardly. We have to give up holding people hostage emotionally. We have to give up living in the past. Let’s not forget the other part of the Old English definition though – ‘to allow’. We have to allow ourselves to move forward. We have to allow others to move forward. We have to allow ourselves a clean, clear, open heart ready to live life fully and enjoy doing it.

That last part sounds really good to me. Is doing the hard work worth the result? That’s your decision to make.