Poor Saint Valentine and his day!

Valentine literally means ‘the little strong one’! What is the root of ‘valentine’?

Khaled Ahmed February 08, 2012

St Valentine’s Day is celebrated on February 14, presumably the season when birds mate. Now, non-Christian youth all over the world celebrates it by sending out gifts, also called valentines. And a Christian saint has become maligned in the process.

All the Catholic saints known as Valentine spent a tough life and were martyred. It was most unjust to associate youthful indulgence with the name Valentine. The day was first established by Pope Gelasius in 496 AD and was deleted from the general calendar of saints in 1969 by Pope Paul VI.

Now, some in Pakistan are cursing it as an ‘imported’ custom that is against the edicts of Islam. But what is the root of ‘valentine’?

The root is ‘vl’ and it means ‘power’. From it we have the word ‘value’ which means ‘power’ (valency) and we have other connected words like ‘prevail’ that point to the same root. When you ‘validate’ something you give it ‘power’.

When you are ill you can be called ‘invalid’. And if someone wants to wish you strength and health, it is called ‘valediction’. If something is equal in strength it is ‘equivalent’. When you say goodbye to someone you normally wish him strength: ‘valedictory’. A brave man will have to be strong, hence ‘valiant’.

Joseph Shipley tends to think that the original word was ‘gal’ and got changed to ‘val’. Or gal was a later development. This ‘gallant’ becomes a part of the family of words implying power. Then he speculated that the root ‘gl’ could lead us to the Greek ‘galo’ meaning ‘milk’! Remember galaxy (Milky Way)?

The Germanic version of ‘vl’ quaintly becomes ‘wld’, so we have the name Harold meaning ‘army’ leader. (The root ‘heri’ means ‘army’, therefore, we have ‘herald’ meaning ‘army officer’). ‘Arnold’ means ‘eagle strength’ and ‘Oswald’ means ‘divine strength’.

Valentine literally means ‘the little strong one’!

There are other variants of the ‘vl’ root. For instance, it changes into ‘wol’ and gives us the Slav word ‘vlad’. It now means ‘pride’, but it began by denoting strength. Thus ‘Vladimir’ means ‘prince of the world’. The Russians say ‘vlast’ for ‘power’ and use it for the Russian state.

John Ayto gives us a different root for ‘gala’, a ‘powerful occasion’. He thinks that it came from Spain and refers to the special dress that the Muslim kings gave to the people they favoured. The Arabic word is ‘khallaa’. In Urdu we call it ‘khal’at’.

In Sanskrit the ‘vl’ root has become ‘bl’ and the word ‘bal’ in Hindi means ‘power’. In Urdu, too, ‘bal’ is used in certain expressions. For instance, ‘balbota’, under one’s own ‘strength’. In Hindi there are a lot of such words.

Nirbal’, in Hindi means ‘powerless’. Balwant is a proper name and means ‘powerful’. But ‘abla’ is someone who doesn’t have ‘power’ or is ‘delicate’. ‘Balat’ is something done with coercion and ‘balatkar’ is rape. The name of the Hindu god Hanuman is Bajrang Bali and ‘bali’ here means ‘powerful’.

In Urdu, the word for wrestler is ‘pehlwan’ which is the same as in Persian. Old Persian ‘pehl’ means ‘strongman’ or ‘champion’ and comes from a root that also means ‘ancient’ and is a name given to the city Isfahan at times. In Hindi, the word for a strong man is ‘balwan’.

What use is a lover if he is not strong? Hence ‘balam’ is ‘lover’ in Hindi. Urdu ‘bel’ (bull) comes from the same root (strong) but Punjabi doesn’t take it. It takes another version ‘bauld’. The Baloch tribe ‘baledi’ means ‘oxherd. The Urdu word ‘bhalla’ or ‘bhallai’ (welfare) is actually ‘empowerment’. The tribe called ‘Bhalla’ prides itself on being ‘strong’.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 9th, 2012.


hariharmani | 9 years ago | Reply

We are a confused lot in this part of the sub-continent.We are sometime more than a :gora saheb;,few educated people can put to gather a sentence in any local languages without mixing English words in it,next time hear and watch any one.Yet ,we will suddenly make 180* turn and mouth hostile words against any thing western like Valentine day.Which is our true self?Islamic/Hindu or in between?,being honest is not one of them,a confused lot,indeed.

Talat Haque | 9 years ago | Reply

How interesting! ........... love the connectivity ............. where and why did human beings lose their connectedness !!!

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