I was just about to write and print a small poster for a month-old baby as he is about to be baptized soon. I wanted to put a "Happy Baptism [name]" when I felt the urge to double-check because it didn't sound right. And it turns out, "baptism" is not the right description of the event but "Christening".

What is the etymology of why this split occurred between the event for a baby and the similar event for an older child / adult?

The following entries on the Online Etymology Dictionary say that the terms are equivalent, but don't say how the terms are used differently at different ages.

Christen (v.) c. 1200, from Old English cristnian "to baptize," literally "to make Christian," from cristen "Christian" (see Christian). General meaning of "to name" is attested from mid-15c. Related: Christened; christening. - etymonline

baptize (v.) c. 1300, from Old French batisier (11c.), from Latin baptizare, from Greek baptizein "immerse, dip in water," also figuratively, "be over one's head" (in debt, etc.), "to be soaked (in wine);" in Greek Christian usage, "baptize;" from baptein "to dip, steep, dye, color," from PIE root **gwabh*- "to dip, sink." Christian baptism originally consisted in full immersion. Related: Baptized; baptizing.

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    In my opinion, this is not a question about the history and proper interpretation of certain English words, this is about making sure your card matches the terminology as used by the parents and their church. Some (Christian) churches will use the term "baptism", others will use the term "Christening". My church uses neither, we have a "baby dedication", and would object to either of the other two, on theological grounds I won't get into.
    – BradC
    Nov 17, 2016 at 15:26
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    I really felt disapointed when this question got closed. This is one example of the many good questions that get closed on this site. The justification was just playing with semantics and nothing tangible. I am glad to see someone acknowleged the importance and placed a bounty on it. There is hope afterall :)
    – samayo
    Nov 17, 2016 at 17:32
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    I think the question might better be asked on the Christianity site, since English speakers who aren't Christians (or are only nominally so, without being active in a church) probably wouldn't have a clue.
    – jamesqf
    Nov 17, 2016 at 18:28
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    @jamesqf One doesn't have to be a Christian to research the question, which is about the use and etymology of two English words. Many questions are asked here about terms I don't have a clue about, such as what nuclear hardened means, but it doesn't mean I couldn't have researched the term. Nov 18, 2016 at 0:52
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    You have a basic misunderstanding. We use baptize for both adults and children (although not all Christians baptize infants). The Eastern Orthodox churches baptize even babies by immersion. Baptize is an ecclesiastical term; the priest/deacon/pastor/person doing the baptism will usually say I baptize you in the name of the Father... but never say I christen you in the name of the Father... Traditionally, babies were named when they were baptized. Nowadays, in western culture, babies a generally named before they leave the hospital. So, a person would receive their name when... Nov 30, 2016 at 16:36

3 Answers 3


This is all interesting, but your choice of what terminology to put on the baby's card/poster has literally nothing to do with dictionary definitions or linguistic etymology of these terms.

You should use whatever term the parents and/or their church prefer, full stop.


Because otherwise you're digging into a minefield of non-linguistic arguments that I guarantee you don't want to get into. Churches may prefer one term over another for inscrutable theological reasons, or for reasons buried in historical conflicts between denominations, or for no good reason at all.

Here's an example: my (former) church has a "baby dedication" ceremony for infants, and would strongly object to either a "christening" or an "infant baptism", since in their belief baptism is reserved for someone old enough to decide for himself or herself. Other churches are sure to have very different preferences, equally strongly held.

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    This sidesteps the question (fails to answer it as a language question). Nov 18, 2016 at 0:37
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    @AlanCarmack admittedly true, since the essence of my answer is "this question shouldn't be treated as a language question".
    – BradC
    Nov 18, 2016 at 22:35

By rights this ought to be a comment, not an answer, but it's likely to run too long...

I'm surprised that the Etymonline entry for "christen" doesn't mention the root of the word "Christ" itself: it means "anointed". The sprinkling of water that's done at a christening resembles an anointing much more than it does an immersion baptism. In fact, the baby is generally also anointed with chrism.

There's also the term "Christian name", which is no longer in common usage in US English, but is interchangeable with "first name" or "forename" (as opposed to "family name", "last name", or "surname".) It's an interesting chicken-and-egg question: is it your "Christian name" because you were given it at your christening, or were you "christened" because that's when you were given your Christian name?


In simple words, Christening refers to the naming ceremony (to "christen" means to "give a name to") where as baptism is one of seven sacraments in the Catholic Church.

But both words can be used interchangably..

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    Answers are more appropriate for the site and more useful for the asker if there are references you cite; otherwise, especially in a case like this where the OP wants to know the distinction, it seems you're giving your opinion. Saying why the words can be used interchangeably, and citing your sources, would improve the answer. Nov 16, 2016 at 17:25
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    Baptism is also a sacrament in some non-Catholic Christian denominations. Nov 22, 2016 at 21:53

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