Posted by: Casey Lybrand | August 25, 2010

Where does evil come from?

I am not sure about the metaphysics, [1] so let’s take a look at the origin of the word evil instead.


The Online Etymology Dictionary tells us that the word evil comes from:

[Old English] yfel (Kentish evel) “bad, vicious,” from [Proto-Germanic] *ubilaz … from [Proto-Indo-European] *upelo-, giving the word an original sense of “uppity, overreaching bounds” which slowly worsened. [2]

Oh, really! Wow.

The Online Etymology Dictionary goes on to say:

The meaning “extreme moral wickedness” was in [Old English], but did not become the main sense until [the] 18[th century]

Okay, there’s some morality caught up in that development: “overreaching bounds” leads to “extreme moral wickedness”. Evil!

Confession time!

I was already inspired to look up the word evil because of @Vordak: this week, he revealed his Secret Supervillain Lair to the world and chortled maniacally as his Tome of Evil was unleashed on an unsuspecting populace. Because he’s evil. Finding out the origin of the word makes it seem all the more appropriate to apply it to him.

Sometimes footnotes have boundary issues:

1: I do, however, know that I love a good apocalypse.

2: I wrote more about the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) language here. Remember, “*” added to a word means something like, “This is our best educated guess about a very old word for which there is no written record”. (The “*” is used for words from an unattested language, such as PIE or the Proto-Germanic language. An unattested language is a language with no direct record. Hence, scholarly analysis plus the “*”.)


  1. When I saw the title of your blog, I forgot it was time for another word of the week, and I was like “oh, she’s in a philosophical mood today…” :-)
    Anyway, I was relieved to see it was a take on language, which I find much more interesting. Fascinating that you mention Kentish…There is an area here in London called Kentish Town but Kentish relates to an old English dialect originating from Kent. Anyway, great stuff as always and now you’ve got me thinking about Dr. Evil from Austin Powers :-)

  2. Hımm… I’m going to Kent in 3 week to execute my evil master plan: become a writer and take over the world!
    Can all this be just a coincidence…? :)

  3. Alannah, that is so very cool, about the dialect! I really don’t know very much about Kentish (I was just quoting from someone who does, in the post), but now I’m interested.

    Oh, and I am rarely philosophical. At least not out loud. I can totally see how the post title would suggest that, though. In fact, I was having a bit of fun. ;)

    Lua, if it is a coincidence, it is a marvelous one. Evil comes from Kent, and you’re going there! I love your evil master plan. I’m quite confident that the life of a novelist lends itself to world domination! Isn’t that why we’re all in this game? ;)

  4. Love this. Not surprising I guess, but somehow almost poetic. Who would have guessed etymology could get so deep?

  5. Thanks, Connor. I love learning where words come from, and I think you’re right: there is often a poetry to etymology.

  6. Now I’m contemplating ways to twist “evil” into various types of compliments…

    I think that makes more sense in my brain than in the words I just typed.

    The point is, your post has me thinking. Yay, post!

  7. I love a good apocalypse as well. Part of the definition of, “good,” being, “Not here.”

  8. I love finding out about words and where they come from. Some of them have an absolutely fascinating history.

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