I'm looking for the etymology of words like godparent, godchild, etc. In particular, why "god" is added as a prefix? So far I haven't found an explanation. Wiktionary (for godfather) states:

From Middle English godfader, from Old English godfæder (“godfather”), equivalent to god +‎ father. Cognate with Old Saxon godfadar (“godfather”), Middle Dutch godvader (“godfather”), Danish gudfader, gudfar (“godfather”), Swedish gudfader, gudfar (“godfather”), Icelandic guðfaðir (“godfather”). Morphologically god +‎ father.

Not very helpful. Wikipedia does not provide clues either. It states:

... by the end of the 6th century, they were being noted to as "compaters" and "commaters"

which is Latin. Spanish and French terms follow a similar structure, without adding the "god" prefix (eg. "com-padre" and "co-madre" in Spanish). It seems the German word also does not contain the particle "god" in it. Any idea about the origin of such word?

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    Note that there is also the regional German word Gote for godmother, and the etymology given by Duden states that it derives from Old High German gota, cognate with Old English godmōdor in the sense of spiritual mother.
    – njuffa
    Jan 15, 2019 at 10:49
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    Can you even become a godparent without taking a vow before God when the child is baptised? It a bit asking about the etymology of 'car' in 'car mechanic'. Jan 16, 2019 at 9:41
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    Anyone can become an informal godparent. The term is used secularly as well. Jan 17, 2019 at 0:24
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    By the way, in Russian we literally say "baptismal parents"
    – trolley813
    Jan 17, 2019 at 7:15
  • I'm not convinced this is meaningful question: OP already knows the etymology and that some Germanic languages form/formed godmother etc. in like manner but just isn't satisfied with it. Really, what more is to be said? One might as well as why Latin, Spanish, French etc. do not use a god-equivalent prefix.... and that sounds just as silly, as it presupposes English/Germanic languages as normative. As a side note, gossip has a fascinating - and related - origin.
    – tmgr
    Jan 17, 2019 at 9:52

4 Answers 4


OED (paywalled) addresses your question,

In particular, why "god" is added as a prefix?

directly in the etymological notes pertaining to 'godfather', n. (bold emphasis mine):

In Old English, god- was prefixed to words expressing family relationship in order to reflect the view that the sponsors enter into a spiritual relationship with the baptized person and with each other (compare GODMOTHER n., GODSON n., GOD-DAUGHTER n., etc., and Old English godsibb: see GOSSIP n.).

That note covers the territory pretty well; the etymology of 'gossip' adds little, although it was of more than passing interest to me. In short, 'gossip' derives from compounding of Old English god n. and int., in the sense of

A superhuman person regarded as having power over nature and human fortunes....

and Old English sib adj. in the sense of

Related by blood or descent...

(All quoted definitions from OED.)

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    Superb! This is exactly what I was looking for. Thanks!
    – luchonacho
    Jan 18, 2019 at 9:20

According to the Wikipedia article on godparents:

As early as the 2nd century AD, infant baptism had begun to gain acceptance among Christians for the spiritual purification and social initiation of infants, the requirement for some confession of faith necessitated the use of adults who acted as sponsors for the child. They vocalized the confession of faith and acted as guarantors of the child’s spiritual beliefs.

Normally, these sponsors were the natural parents of a child, as emphasized in 408 by St. Augustine who suggested that they could, it seems exceptionally, be other individuals. Within a century, the Corpus Juris Civilis indicates that parents had been replaced in this role almost completely. This was clarified in 813 when the Council of Munich prohibited natural parents from acting as godparents to their own children.

Godparents, to an extent, acted as 'parents' in the eyes of god, permitted to take a shared burden of the child should something happen to the parents, for example.

While the Latin languages opted for a co-parent, the Germanic languages (including various German dialects as seen in this chart from Wikipedia ) decided to go with 'God'.

I would presume the popularity of having a non-parental godparent would be for social, but also economical reasons, such as tying family bonds and having people to look after the children.

I hope this provides some insight.

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    My only citation for this claim is one of my elementary school teachers, but I offer it in the hope that someone knows of a better source. The claim was that this practice arose to explain the two different genealogies of Jesus that appear in the New Testament canon. Jan 16, 2019 at 1:21
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    It is likely that the two genealogies were the maternal (Matthew, which "proved" him as a Jew) and paternal (Luke, which spoke more to the Greek audience).
    – Stephen
    Jan 16, 2019 at 4:38
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    @Stephen the claim is often repeated, but never with basis, and does not seem likely. Both genealogies are explicitly through Joseph: Matthew says "And Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary" and Luke says "Joseph, which was the son of Heli". If Matthew were describing the genealogy of Mary, then using "begat" in this way is just wrong and without precedent.
    – Warren
    Jan 17, 2019 at 1:29
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    Actually I got it around the wrong way, It's more commonly thought that Luke is through the maternal side and Matthew through the paternal. There's a lot of information on it out there, including why it appears that Joseph has two dads.
    – Stephen
    Jan 17, 2019 at 3:41
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    The last sentence in the Wikipedia text you cite is wrong, there was never a "Council of Munich" - I just fixed it in Wikipedia. Jan 17, 2019 at 11:19

I think it refers to the “role” of the godparents as God’s vicar.

The origin of godparents dates back to the early beginnings of the Christian Church. A sponsor was required for any person desirous of receiving the sacraments of baptism, holy Eucharist and confirmation. The role of the sponsor was to vouch for the person's character and to aid them as they prepared to take the sacraments.

Around 800 AD baptism of infants became commonplace and their sponsors were referred to as "patrinus" in Latin, which translates to "godfather."


Officially, it was a promise before God, that said person would take responsibility for their Godchild in the event of the parents not being able to - killed, etc. It happened at the Christening, in church, so was a solemn vow. It also combined with encouraging the child to be a good practising Christian.

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