The etymology of hypocrisy

(Many thanks to my friends at

My puzzlement over the hypocritical octopus and the hypocritical ocean wave in Victor Hugo’s Les Travailleurs de la Mer led me to an etymological investigation of the words hypocrite and hypocrisy (hypocrisie) in English,  French, Latin, and Greek (but not Hebrew.) It was actually sort of a wild goose chase, but I put in a lot of time into it and one of the privileges of obscure bloggers is to publish anything they want. This is probably my least interesting post ever, since most people aren’t interested in etymology and the ones who are have better things to read.

The word “hypocrite” and its derivatives trace back to the Greek. Neither the word nor the concept is found in Hebrew. The  word does not appear in the Septuagint, the Jews’ own Greek translation of the Tanakh (the Old Testament), though it does appear in a different Jewish translation of the Tanakh into Greek. When the word is seen in the KJV translation of the Old Testament  it translates, and possibly mistranslates, a word that simply means “godless” or “lawless”. (Whether it’s a translation or a mistranslation depends on the degree to which the Biblical Greek word’s meaning had diverged from its classical Greek meaning).

In classical Greek the word “hypocrite” means someone who is pretending to be or acting as someone else. It can be  negative, as in the case of a fraud, or neutral, as in the case of stage actors and public spokesmen.

The word appears many times in the Greek New Testament, often in the words of Christ.  This is problematic, since Jesus did not speak Greek and there doesn’t seem to be an Aramaic or Hebrew equivalent of the word. In only one case does this word clearly have its classical Greek meaning of “pretending”; in the others (and in the exceptional Jewish translation mentioned above) the Greek word seems to have acquired an additional meaning beyond just feigning and dissimulation, something more like “evil”.

Presumably the Greek word had evolved (perhaps under the influence of Hebrew and Aramaic). Conjecturally, if “hypocrisy” in the sense of “feigning” had come to be used mostly in cases when evil people were feigning goodness, then “evil” might become part of the definition.  Thus, “pretending to be good, but really evil inside” and simply “evil inside”, rather than “feigning”,  might have become the primary meaning of the word. However the restricted “feigning” meaning probably never quite disappeared — Godefroy cites an instance from Old French.

It seems pretty clear that the common European meaning of the word is derived (via the Vulgate) from Biblical and not classical Greek, though some scholarly writers may have occasionally deliberately reverted to the classical meaning. One source claims that the word came to English via Molière’s play Tartuffe, ou le Hypocrite, and while this is not true and is off by many centuries, it’s possible that in English the limited Tartuffian sense became dominant while the broader meaning survived in France. Even so, Hugo’s application of the word “hypocrite” to an octopus pretending to be a rock and to the murderous ocean wave feigning innocence does seem like quite a stretch.  But Hugo, being Hugo, could lay it on as thick as he wanted.


Littré: “hypocrisie”, sense #3

Hypocrisie se prend quelquefois dans un sens moins odieux, surtout dans le style léger, pour désigner en un moment donné l’affectation de sentiments qu’on n’éprouve pas.

Reverso online translating dictionary

(The many synonyms listed here seem to indicate that the word is primarily used as an insult and is not necessarily as specific in meaning as it might be assumed)


Adjectif singulier: doucereux, mielleux, fourbe, cauteleux  (vieilli) chafouin, jésuitique, patelin, grimacier  (vieilli) papelard  (vieilli) pharisien, matois, insinuant, rusé, cagot, félon, insincère

Nom: tartufe, matois, fourbe, escobar, judas, sainte-nitouche, simulatrice, pharisienne, pharisien, menteur, cafard

CNRTL Dictionnaire du Moyen Français

I. – Adj. “Qui affiche des sentiments religieux ou des vertus qui ne sont que feints, qui n’est pas sincère, qui est fourbe” : SAINCT MARTIN. (…) De cueur parfait, Je me delicte En loy escripte Qui, sans redicte, Je croy, pour estre en Dieu reffait, Sans nullement estre ypocrite, En ce poinct comme on l’a tanscripte Et que vous la m’avez produyte Affin que ne soye deffaict. (LA VIGNE, S.M., 1496, 275).

[D’une attitude (personnifiée)] : Faulse beaulté [m’amye] qui tant me couste chier, Rude en effect, ypocrite doulceur, Amour dure plus que fer a macher, Nommer que puis, de ma deffaçon seur, Cherme felon, la mort d’un povre cueur, Orgueil mussé qui gens met au mourir, Yeulx sans pitié, ne veult droit de rigueur (VILLON, Test. R.H., 1461-1462, 83).

II. – Empl. subst. : L’ENNEMY. Or vous tien je pris en mes laz, Murtrier, mauvais, non pas hermittes, Mais luxurieux ypocrites (Mir. st J. Paulu, c.1372, 116). Qui feit aux ypocrites servir saintement Dieu par grant peine et labeur en jeunes, en oyant messes, en voyages, en voulans a tous complaire, et par ce en estant de tous serfs en foles largesces ? Certes toutes ces choses et autres innumerables fait amour de vaine gloire. (GERS., Concept., 1401, 412). L’ypocrite pervers, de sa montagne descendu, luy mect son baston creux a l’oreille. [Un ermite luxurieux abuse de la crédulité d’une vieille femme pour séduire sa fille, en se présentant comme un envoyé de Dieu] (C.N.N., c.1456-1467, 102). Or entendez la deception mauvaise et horrible traïson que ces faulx ypocrites pourchasserent a ceulx et celles qui tant de biens (…) leur faisoient. (C.N.N., c.1456-1467, 216).

Étymol. et Hist. 1176 adj. ipocrite (Chr. de Troyes, Cligès, éd. A. Micha, 3046). Empr. au b. lat. hypocrita « hypocrite » (lat. imp. « mime [qui accompagnait l’acteur avec des gestes]) », gr. ὑποκριτής « celui qui distingue, explique, interprète; acteur; fourbe, hypocrite ».

Godefroy Old French dictionary, “hypocrite”:

“Deguisement.” [The example given is of  disguise and deception, not hypocrisy in the English sense.]

English etymology of “hypocrite”:

Early 13c., from O.Fr. ypocrite (Mod.Fr. hypocrite), from Church L. hypocrita, from Gk. hypokrites “stage actor, pretender, dissembler,” from hypokrinesthai (see hypocrisy).

Early 13c., from O.Fr. ypocrisie, from L.L. hypocrisis, from Gk. hypokrisis “acting on the stage, pretense,” from hypokrinesthai “play a part, pretend,” also “answer,” from hypo- “under” (see sub-) + middle voice of krinein “to sift, decide” (see crisis). The sense evolution is from “separate gradually” to “answer” to “answer a fellow actor on stage” to “play a part.”

English etymology of “hypocrite” #2:

(Only interesting because it traces the word back no farther than Molière’s play.)

EBible etymology of “hypocrite”

HYPOCRISY, HYPOCRITE. In the context of Gr. Drama the term hypocrite was applied to an actor on the theater stage. Since an actor pretends to be someone other than himself, hypocrites was applied metaphorically to a person who “acts a part” in real life, pretending to be better than he actually is, one who simulates goodness. In secular Gr. Literature, therefore, hypocrites may be either neutral or undesirable. In the NT, however, it is always undesirable, signifying one who works a deception by feigned piety.

This concept of pretended goodness was foreign to OT thought. The Heb. Root h-n-p, translated “hypocrisy” or “hypocrite” in the KJV, was translated in the LXX [Septuagint–Greek translation of the Old Testament] by anomos, “lawless,” “criminal,” or “godless,” parallel to poneros, “an evil doer” (Isa 9:17); and by asebes, “godless,” “irreverent” (Isa 33:14).

In the book of Job it is clear that the hanep is one radically opposed to God, one who forgets God (Job 8:13; 15:34-35; 20:5; 27:8). The verb hanep means to pollute or corrupt (cf. Num 35:33; Ps 106:38; Isa 24:5; Jer 3:1). Theodotion’s translation of Job, later incorporated into the LXX, rendered Heb. hanep as hypocrites in two verses (Job 34:30; 36:13). Thus it seems that Greek-speaking Jews were employing hypokrisis in another sense in addition to its metaphorical meaning of feigning to be what one is not.

….“Hypocrite” occurs 18 times and “hypocrisy” twice in the words of Jesus. He warned His disciples of “the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy” (Lk 12:1). He diagnosed them as appearing righteous to men, but being full of hypocrisy and iniquity within (Mt 23:28). That He accused the Pharisees of more than mere pretending is suggested by the parallels to the reading “their hypocrisy” in Mk 12:15. In Mt 22:18 it is “their wickedness” or malice, and in Lk 20:23 it is “their craftiness.” Only in Lk 20:20 does the verb hypokrino retain the original Gr. meaning of pretending: the scribes and chief priests, attempting to arrest Jesus, sent spies “who pretended to be sincere” (RSV).

Outside the Gospels hypokrisis occurs three times. Paul rebuked Peter for “dissimulation,” his deliberate inconsistency of first eating with Gentile converts at Antioch and then, fearing the circumcision party, refusing to associate with them further (Gal 2:13, verb and noun)–and this following God’s vision to Peter prior to his visiting Cornelius (Acts 10). Paul reveals that in the last times there will be those who follow evil spirits and doctrines of demons and speak lies in hypocrisy (1Tim 4:1-2). The Christian himself is warned to get rid of all hypocrisy in his life (1 Pet 2:1).

Published in: on March 29, 2010 at 10:02 pm  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] sent me on a long but interesting wild goose chase through the dictionaries. The consensus seems to be that Hugo, who has never been accused of not […]

  2. Believe it or not— research on the etymology of the word “hypocrisy” is exactly what I was looking for 🙂

  3. Thank you for this ! Excellent work! I googled Aramaic for hypocrisy to see if Matthew 6 hypocrisy really meant that as it is such a Greek term to put in Jesus’ mouth – you whet my appetite to delve into Hugo in French again – oh JOY 🙂

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