This is a brief introduction to the etymology and names for frankincense, this article will be expanding as more information is researched and posted.

Frankincense Etymology

Etymology, is the study of words, and their origins.  In this article, I wish to show the origin of the word “frankincense”, and its variations throughout the ages, and different languages and cultures.

Middle English

“Þese ben liȝt medicyns whiche þat drien olde woundis þat neden a litil driynge: mastik, frank encense, barli mele.”   Lanfrank’s ‘Science of Cirurgie’, Middle English, 1396 A.D.  

Some of the earliest written recordings in the English language containing references to frankincense date back to the late 14th century.  The word frankincense comes from Middle Latin “frankum incensum”, which means high quality or pure incense.  The early English variations include, fraunk encense, frank encense, and frank incense.

Semitic Languages

“ויאמר יהוה אל־משה קח־לך סמים נטף ׀ ושחלת וחלבנה סמים ולבנה זכה בד בבד יהיה׃”
” And the LORD said unto Moses, Take unto thee sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum; these sweet spices with pure frankincense: of each shall there be a like weight:”  Exodus 30:34

The Semitic Language family is the family which Hebrew and Arabic are derived from.  The Semitic root for “white” is “LBN” or “laban” in both Hebrew and Arabic, ie,  לבן and لبن.

The Hebrew word for frankincense is “levona, or ha levona” ,חלבנה which is speculated to refer to the white smoke the resin emits when burnt, however, white may also refer to “milking” as the Modern Arabic verb to milk is “halab”, حَلَب which may refer to the process of extracting the white resins from the frankincense tree.

An interesting note, is that the Chinese word for frankincense, Ru Xiang, 乳香 literally means “milk incense”.  As tradition in both Asia and the Middle East both make use of frankincense water, I myself would not rule out that the white milky frankincense water may have contributed to its name also.

The modern Arabic word for Frankincense is “Al Lubban”,اللبان.

Italic Language Family

The Italic language family consist of Latin and is derivatives, such as French, Italian Romanian, Portuguese and Spanish.  The Latin words for incense and frankincense are “tus,thus” or “olibanum” which both derived from Greek words.  The Greek word of interest here is “livani”, λιβάνι which is borrowed from the Semetic languages, possibly from both Arabic and Hebrew.

The Latin word for “ignite” or “fire” is “incensus”, where we find the English word incense in Frankincense.   In modern Italic languages, incense is the word for both incense and frankincense.

  • Italian – incenso
  • French – encens
  • Spanish – incienso
  • Portuguese – incenso

The Celtic language languages where influenced by another Latin word for incense which is “Tus” and also derives from the Greek language

  • Welsh – Thus
  • Irish – Túis

Germanic Language Family

The Germanic language family consists of German, Dutch, English, and the Scandinavian languages.  The German word for frankincense is “weihrauch” which comes from the Old High German word “wīh” which means holy, and the word “rauch” which means smoke.  Cognates similar to “weihrauch” are the Dutch word “wierook” and the Norwegian word “virak”

Bulgarian Language

Bulgarian is part of the Balto-Slavic language family, which covers a large area of Eastern Europe, and includes Bulgarian, Croatian, Czechoslovakian and Russian.  Christianity spread throughout Eastern Europe mainly through Greek Orthodoxy, which also influenced many Eastern European languages with its theological terminology.  In Bulgaria, the word for frankincense is  “liban”ливан which derives from the Greek word”livani”, λιβάνι.  The Greek word “livani” is most likely borrowed from Hebrew through the translation of the Torah into the Greek language.  The Greek Torah is called the Septuagint.

Frankincense in Other Languages

In many languages the word for incense is interchangeable with frankincense.  Below you will find a small list of the words for frankincense in different languages.

  • French – encens
  • Swahili – ubani
  • Japanese – Nyūkō
  • Hindi – लोहबान
  • Czech – kadidlo
  • Somalian – fooxa
  • Croatian – tamjan
  • Spanish – incienco
  • Swedish – rökelse

Final Notes..

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