Hallow, sacred, holy and saint seem to resemble each other but are not identical. So what's the difference between them?

I have searched http://dictionary.babylon.com and spotted:

Hallow: sanctify, consecrate, bless, exalt, glorify

Sanctify: consecrate, make holy; make free from sin, purify; become holy

Saint: person canonized by the Christian Church for his holy qualities; extremely holy person, very righteous person

Sacred: holy, worthy of reverence; sanctified, consecrated; pertaining to religion

Holy: sacred, consecrated; divine; devoted to the service of God or religion; saintly, godly

So to hallow is to make holy, a saint is a holy person, but holy and sacred are circularly defined...

  • 2
    Popopo: How would others know, just from reading your question, that you've even bothered to look these up? And what would prevent others from spending time copying dictionary definitions which you've already studied? That's why @coleopterist is giving the very valid hint that you need to elaborate on this question. For a good example to work from, see this question.
    – J.R.
    Commented Oct 5, 2012 at 13:33
  • @coleopterist Okay, no problem.
    – Popopo
    Commented Oct 5, 2012 at 13:47
  • This question assumes there's a difference. Remember English is chock full of synonyms that have almost no definable difference other than the difference of the contexts where their use is most common. Oh, and Saint=noun, hallow=verb, Sacred,Holy=adjectives. Core non-circular word behind all of these is that the moral perfection that pertains to a Deity is being referred to, either as Holy, or Sacred, with mean about the same thing.
    – Warren P
    Commented Oct 5, 2012 at 21:08
  • @WarrenP It's certainly true that there are many words in English that have no discernable difference in meaning from another English word. But it's also true that there are many words that have similar meanings but with subtle shades of difference in meaning or different connotations. Dictionary definitions do not always make this clear. I think it's perfectly legitimate for someone to question whether in any particular case, the words mean exactly the same thing or not.
    – Jay
    Commented Oct 9, 2012 at 13:51

3 Answers 3


As you note in your question, "holy" and "sacred" are adjectives, "hallow" and "sanctify" are verbs, and "saint" is a noun. To "hallow" is to "make holy" and to "sanctify" is to "make sacred". So there's little mystery about that difference.

The more interesting question is the difference between "holy" and "sacred". Every dictionary I checked called them synonyms and/or defined them in terms of each other, as you note. I think for everyday speech they should be regarded as synonymous. Of course you can't take dictionary definitions too literally: they often miss connotations, shades of meaning, and technical meanings.

I just did a quick search of a New King James Bible for the two words (using biblegateway.com) and I notice this: "holy" is consistently used to refer to things dedicated or set apart for God, like the "Holy Place" in the temple, the place where God spoke to Moses as "holy ground", Israel being set apart as a "holy nation", etc. It is used very often in many different contexts. The word "sacred" is almost always used in just two contexts: referring to meetings for a religious purpose as "sacred assemblies", and referring to the posts used in the worship of Baal and Asherah as "sacred pillars".

So I'm not sure what conclusions to draw. It appears that the Bible freely uses "sacred" to refer to things from other religions, but uses "holy" only to refer to Jewish and Christian things. My tentative conclusion -- and I will gladly yield here to someone with more solid evidence -- is that both words mean "dedicated or set apart for god or the Gods", but that "sacred" means something that people have dedicated to their god, while "holy" means something that God has set apart for himself.

  • +1. It looks like we've come to pretty much the same conclusion (but you've supplied somewhat more evidence).
    – TRiG
    Commented Oct 5, 2012 at 15:43
  • +1, I suppose that the conclusions are right, but the principle you assume, in itself, is probably erroneous. By employing different premises, especially in etymological sense, I presume we could get some better results.
    – user19148
    Commented Oct 5, 2012 at 16:28
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    The contextual distinction that you've found between 'holy' and 'sacred' could be native to English, or it couldd have been an artifact of translation, the original language having a distinction and then that mapped arbitrarily to two synonymous English words.
    – Mitch
    Commented Oct 5, 2012 at 17:39
  • 3
    @Mitch: That's a good thought. To test it, I've repeated the search that Jay describes, and looked at various hits from the Hebrew Bible. Indeed, in all cases of "holy" that I looked at, it represented the Hebrew adjective kadosh "holy" or noun kodesh "holiness" (the latter being used attributively: "___ of holiness" = "holy ___"). However, the cases of "sacred" were more variable; "sacred assembly/meeting" consistently represented atsara, "sacred pillar" consistently represented matseva, and -- most importantly IMHO -- in II Kings 12:8 "sacred thing" represented kodesh ("holiness").
    – ruakh
    Commented Oct 5, 2012 at 18:12
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    @Mitch I considered checking what words were used in the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, but didn't because, (a) I was too lazy, and (b) that could give us clues to the meaning of the English words but would not be definitive. I see Ruakh got ambiguous results for "sacred" using that method. If this was a Bible study and we were debating the meaning of a Bible verse, recourse to the Hebrew would be valuable. But here we're asking about the English used to translate.
    – Jay
    Commented Oct 5, 2012 at 18:43

In my own usage, a sacred object or place is one that humans have deemed to be dedicated to their God(s), while a holy object or place is one that God has reserved for his use. In other words, you could well believe that the artefacts of another religion are not actually holy, but accept that they are nonetheless sacred.

In many religions, God himself/the Gods themselves are regarded as holy, not sacred.

I'm afraid I cannot distinguish hallow and sanctify so clearly, but I think there's a whisper of the same distinction: generally speaking, it's a priest who sanctifies something, and a God who hallows it. (The only occurrence of hallow I can think of recently is Yavanna hallowing certain items in The Silmarillion, which accords with this usage.)

Unlike the others, saint is a specifically Christian term, and its meanings differ between different branches of Christianity. In some definitions, all Christians are "saints". In others, a saint is a specifically virtuous, righteous, and holy person.

  • RE "saint": Specifically, Catholics use "saint" to refer to a person who is particularly meritorious and has been selected through a formal procedure as worthy of this title. Protestants use "saint" to mean any Christian. Whether this is a substantive disagreement or just two different definitions for the same word is a subject for a different forum.
    – Jay
    Commented Oct 5, 2012 at 15:38
  • @Jay. You could try it on Christianity SE if you like, but I don't think it would fly. I tend to say that such questions are not even meaningful.
    – TRiG
    Commented Oct 5, 2012 at 15:45
  • I have read the use of "Saint" to refer to people in the Muslim religion, as well as of Sikh "Saints". As the english word saint comes from the Latin sanctus, the original use is indeed a term specific to Christianity, but that is no longer the case.
    – Warren P
    Commented Oct 9, 2012 at 15:18
  • @WarrenP. It looks confusing, so I've asked a question.
    – TRiG
    Commented Oct 9, 2012 at 15:54

Whenever you have two Modern English words that mean almost exactly the same thing, it is probable that only one existed in Old English, while the other was imported from the Romance languages, there having been several such bulk imports in English's history. This appears to be the situation with holy and sacred: the former is Old English, the latter comes from Latin sacer by way of French sacre and the oldest citation in the OED is 1380 (referring specifically to the Eucharist).

Whenever you have a question of English etymology, the canonical reference is the Oxford English Dictionary. This is what it says about the etymology of holy; note the explicit comparison to sanctus, sacer.

holy, adj. and n.
Etymology: Old English hálig, -eg (in inflection contracted to hálg-), also Northumbrian hǽlig (whence northern Middle English hely), Old Frisian hêlech, Old Saxon hêlag, -eg (Middle Dutch heilech, -egh-, Dutch heilig), Old High German heilag (Middle High German heilec, German heilig), Old Norse heilagr (Swedish helig, Danish hellig) < Old Germanic type *hailag-oz, the sense of which is expressed in the Gothic of Ulfilas by weihs (but hailag, apparently ‘consecrated, dedicated’, is read on a Runic inscription generally held to be Gothic). A derivative of the adj. *hailo-, Old English hál, free from injury, whole, hale, or of the derivative n. *hailoz-, *hailiz-, in Old High German heil, Old Norse heill health, happiness, good luck, in Old Norse also omen, auspice.

The sense-development < hailo- is not clear, because the primitive pre-Christian meaning is uncertain, although it is with some probablity assumed to have been ‘inviolate, inviolable, that must be preserved whole or intact, that cannot be injured with impunity’, a sense preserved in Old Norse; hence the adj. would naturally be applied to the gods, and all things specially pertaining to them; and, with the introduction of Christianity, it would be a ready word to render Latin sanctus, sacer. But it might also start < hail- in the sense ‘health, good luck, well-being’, or be connected with the sense ‘good omen, auspice, augury’, as if ‘of good augury’: compare Old High German heilisôn, Old English hálsian, to HALSE v., augur, divine, exorcise, etc. The sense arrangement here is therefore merely provisional; we cannot in Old English get behind Christian senses in which holy is equated with Latin sanctus, sacer.


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