Sometimes the light of language shines so bright as to blind a person.
This week I’ve had cause to encounter the sentence I am a sinner a few times, and it’s been twirling in my head for much of the day today. There are a handful of I am statements that have some meaningful resonance for me and for a lot of other people: Cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am), the heart of Cartesian rationalism; Ich bin ein berliner, John F. Kennedy’s much-maligned effort to form a Teutonic bond; I am woman, hear me roar, that estrogenic anthem of 2nd wave feminism.
But it wasn’t the I am part of this sentence that got caught in my thinker; it was the sinner part. That word — sin — causes all kinds of upset among all kinds of people no matter what they believe or don’t believe about it. So I decided to have a look.
It turns out that saying I am a sinner is, etymologically speaking, a bit pleonastic. The word sin derives ultimately from the same historical root as the words am, is, and are. German sein, sind, and ist, Spanish ser, soy, somos, eres, and es, and French être, suis, es, est, sommes, êtes, and sont are all cognate — all forms of the verb ‘to be.’ Other English relatives include essence, entity, interest, represent, and yes. The derivation of sin from its proto-forms involved the acknowledgment of guilt: I am (guilty) or It is (a true sin).
Look, my perspectives are not impeccable, and perhaps my suggestions herein are more than peccadillos. Certainly it’s not the case that every language’s word for ‘sin‘ is related to ‘being.’ Latinate languages, for example, have words for ‘sin‘ that are historically related to foot, pedal, podiatrist, fetter, impede, and impeach: etymologically, speaking, our feet are as likely to stumble as they are to walk; from the time we first stood upright, we began to fall.
Transgression is the human condition, or at least a big part of it. We make mistakes. We hurt each other. Sometimes deliberately, sometimes negligently. Mostly we apologize and try to make it right. We may not agree about what sin is, but we can all be confident that if any one of us does it, we all do it. I’m no theologian, but the etymology is pretty provocative: to be is to sin; to sin is to be. With all due respect to René Descartes, pecco, ergo sum.