Etymology of the word ‘choir’

A piece of etymology that I love is this one from the wonderful Online Etymology Dictionary, on the etymology of the word ‘choir’. It’s fairly clear that ‘choir’ comes from the Latin word ‘chorus’, which in turn came from the Greek word ‘khoros’. The Latin word ‘chorus’ could mean either a round dance, or a group of people singing and dancing (in Classical times, these two things usually went together). In both Latin and Greek, the word ‘chorus’ could also mean a group of people in a play whose role was to express – between pieces of the action – “the moral and religious sentiments evoked by the actions of the play”. (In a similar way, the chorales in Bach’s Passion music, sung by the chorus rather than by the soloists, interrupt the action and encourage us to reflect on our feelings.)

Where it gets murky is when you go one step further back, to the origin of the Greek word. Etymology Online suggests that ‘khoros’ comes from the root word ‘*gher-’ in Proto-Indo-European (PIE), the language that linguists have deduced was the precursor of most present-day Indian or European languages. The asterisk indicates that this is a reconstructed word, or, if you like, an educated guess. There are no written sources of PIE.

But *gher- seems to have two quite different meanings:

*gher- (1) is associated with the idea of ‘enclosure’. It’s the root of words such as ‘garden’, ‘court’, ‘orchard’, and ‘yard’ (meaning the patch of ground outside a house). This root suggests an interpretation of ‘khoros’ as an enclosed area for singing and dancing.

*gher- (2) is associated with the idea of ‘liking’ or ‘wanting’. It’s the root of words such as ‘charisma’, ‘exhort’, ‘greed’ and ‘yearning’. This root conjurs the idea of a chorus that transports its audience (and itself) emotionally.

The two aren’t necessarily incompatible: you can have an enclosed area in which yearning is expressed! The word ‘exhort’ (meaning ‘encourage’, ‘urge’) is very closely related to the Latin word ‘hortus’ (meaning ‘garden’): and gardens or orchards are places in which we encourage plants to grow and bear fruit. 

I’m just delighted in finding a connection between choirs and gardens. Choir as a safe place for expressing yearning and joy …

Please feel free to comment below on which root makes the most sense to you. 

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