During a recent debate I was having with a peer, I was shocked to find out that the word "forgive" no longer carries a primary association with the act of pardoning another individual (i.e., informally cancelling indebtedness or absolving deeds done). In fact, when I search both Google's and Oxford's websites, the definition (for both) is given as follows:


  1. stop feeling angry or resentful toward (someone) for an offense, flaw, or mistake.
  2. cancel (a debt).
  3. used in polite expressions as a request to excuse or regard indulgently one's foibles, ignorance, or impoliteness.

Merriam-Webster's online dictionary is seemingly no better, offering this:


  1. to stop feeling anger toward (someone who has done something wrong) : to stop blaming (someone)
  2. to stop feeling anger about (something) : to forgive someone for (something wrong)
  3. to stop requiring payment of (money that is owed)

In stark contrast, when I reference my 2001 version of Webster's Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language, I'm given this:


  1. to grant pardon for or remission of (an offense, debt.,etc.); absolve.
  2. to give up all claim on account of; remit {a debt, obligation, etc.).
  3. to grant pardon to (a person).
  4. to cease to feel resentment against: to forgive one's enemies
  5. to cancel an indebtedness or liability of: to forgive the interest owed on a loan
  6. to pardon an offense or an offender

So, if what appears to be a wild difference in usage/meaning has occurred over the past 13 years, I guess what I'm wondering is:

a) When did this happen?

b) Why did this happen?

c) Am I the only person who thinks this is crazy?

  • 4
    Are you comparing like with like? You have focused on the definitions changing with time, but your evidence is taken from different dictionaries, and is therefore inconclusive: you should actually be comparing different editions of the same dictionary.
    – Erik Kowal
    Commented Nov 27, 2014 at 2:49
  • I'm under the impression that Merriam-Webster's online dictionary is a future iteration of my 2001 version. Even if it's technically not, given how common the word "forgive" is, it's pretty shocking to me that there would be much of any variation at all across most volumes from any publisher.
    – Funktr0n
    Commented Nov 27, 2014 at 2:53
  • 1
    Two points: 1) It's not apparent from your question (or your evidence) why you think the monetary connotation of forgive should be the primary one. 2) Different dictionaries have different criteria for the order of their listed meanings. For instance, my 1983 Chambers 20th Century Dictionary explicitly says that it gives the historically earliest meaning first, because "historical order is [..] the most logical, since it shows [..] the historical development of the word, each entry providing a potted history of the word". But not everyone using that dictionary will have read that...
    – Erik Kowal
    Commented Nov 27, 2014 at 3:20
  • @Funktron The 2001 dictionary you cite is published by Grammercy, not Merriam-Webster. And dictionaries do differ in both their criteria and their calculation of how to order definitions. Of online offerings, CD and MW give the first meaning of crop asan organ in birds and worms, AHD and ODO say it is a cultivated plant, and CDO says it is the total amount harvested of such a plant.
    – choster
    Commented Nov 27, 2014 at 3:23
  • A third point that occurs to me is that not all dictionaries are equally comprehensive, and so for space reasons some of the less frequently applied meanings may be dropped from the set of definitions relating to a given word (especially in the print editions, where the financial cost of additional pages is tangible).
    – Erik Kowal
    Commented Nov 27, 2014 at 3:26

1 Answer 1


This answer will probably elicit scores of down-votes, but no matter.

I suggest the increasingly secular, post-Christian zeitgeist of recent history is at least partially to blame for the gradual erosion of the concept of forgiveness as a pardon for an offense--or even, gulp, a sin! I deplore this relatively recent trend.

As a Christian myself I identify strongly with that particular denotation of forgive, though I am not averse to linking the word forgive also to the cancelling of a debt and giving up any future claims on it. The two phenomena seem to be cut from the same piece of cloth.

The Bible is rife with teaching about (and illustrations of, and exhortations concerning) forgiveness. Jesus' exemplar of prayer includes the sentence,

"And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors . . .."

Debts, of course, can also be translated trespasses, which generally speaking involve stepping over boundaries and into behaviors which are deemed to be unacceptable, immoral, and unethical. Metaphorically,to trespass is to go where one should not go, just as a hunter deliberately enters land which is posted "No Trespassing" or a a straying husband trespasses against his wife by seeking out the services of a prostitute.

There is a saying,

"To forgive is to forget."

I suggest that forgetting a trespass against us, whether an unkind word or insult, a lie, or even a person's refusal to forgive us, is humanly impossible. We can, however, choose to remember differently, which is really the hallmark of true forgiveness. When one is tempted to engage in "digging up bones, exhuming things that's better left alone," as the popular country song put it a few years ago, the best thing to do is to remind ourselves that the bones need to stay buried and not brought into the light again.

Put differently, to forgive is to refuse to rub a person's face in the trespass, even though we might be tempted to do so. To give in to the temptation is tantamount to taking revenge, which according Christian doctrine is the province of God, not human beings.

I guess you could say that to forgive someone from the heart involves an application of the so-called "Golden Rule"; namely, do unto others as you would like others to do unto you.

  • Yeah, those darned non-religious people, not paying any attention to sin. I bet they will all burn in Hell, because they don't know enough about God to ask forgiveness! Because God is Jealous and concerned about the one sheep that goes missing, instead of the 99 that... um. Wait a minute.
    – user126158
    Commented May 12, 2016 at 0:11
  • @Mehrdad: You're right. Sorry for the confusion. Don Commented May 12, 2016 at 7:46
  • @nocomprende: Whether religious or not, a person "burns in hell" for refusing the forgiveness God proffers him through the death of his Son. As for folks who have never heard of Jesus Christ, let alone received the gift of forgiveness, well, that's a horse of a different color. I suggest you read Romans 1:18-23. Also, why would a loving God force into heaven someone who didn't want to be there? However a person winds up in hell, it's not because God sends him there. In a sense he sends himself there. Whose fault is it when a drowning person refuses a lifeline? His savior's fault? Don Commented May 12, 2016 at 8:04
  • I guess my position is more like, the drowning person doesn't know what the lifeline is. Despite being told or urged, they are in such a state that they do not recognize it. This is a common problem when people are drowning, or living in the modern world. Their feelings and situation are too overwhelming for them to get their bearings consistently. Thus they focus on their feelings, rather than ideas like pardoning, as I mentioned in my comment to the question.
    – user126158
    Commented May 12, 2016 at 12:32
  • @nocomprende: That's where a deep understanding of Romans 1:18-23 enters the picture, for there Paul posits under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that no one is unaware of God's existence (except perhaps those who are brain damaged from birth, and a few other exceptions). While not pretending to have the last word on God's judgment methods, I suggest that God's criteria for judgment will be 1) the amount of spiritual LIGHT people possess at the time they die, and 2) what people DID with that light while they were alive. According to these two criteria, God will judge us all, including me. Commented May 12, 2016 at 14:34

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