The words used to refer to ‘God’ in different languages are related to various concepts. The peoples of antiquity attempted to find in their languages a word to express their notion of God or, rather, their experience of encounter with the Divinity.
In the languages of Germanic origin the word Gott comes from a verb meaning ‘to fall to the ground’, to fall in worship. This reflects an experience similar to that of St. Paul, who, when illumined by God on the road to Damascus, was struck by divine light and immediately ‘fell to the ground... in fear and trembling’ (Acts 9:4-6).
In the Slavic languages the word Bog (‘God’) is related to the Sanskrit bhaga, which means ‘dispensing gifts’, and which in its turn comes from bhagas, meaning ‘inheritance’, ‘happiness’, ‘wealth’. The Slavonic word bogatstvo means ‘riches’, ‘wealth’. Here we find God expressed in terms of the fulness of being, perfection and bliss. These properties, however, do not remain within God, but are poured out onto the world, onto people and onto all living things. God dispenses the gift of His plenitude and endows us with His riches, when we turn to Him.
According to Plato, the Greek word for God, Theos, originates from the verb theein, meaning ‘to run’. St. Gregory the Theologian identifies a second etymology beside the one of Plato: he claims that the name Theos comes from the verb aithein, meaning ‘to be set alight’, ‘to burn’, ‘to be aflame’. St. Basil the Great offers two more etymologies: ‘God is called Theos either because He placed (tetheikenai) all things, or because He beholds (theasthai) all things’.
The Name by which God revealed Himself to the ancient Israelites was Yahweh, meaning ‘The One Who Is’, that is, the One Who has existence and being. It derives from the verb hayah, meaning ‘to be’, ‘to exist’, or rather from the first person of this verb, ehieh — ‘I am’. This verb has a dynamic meaning: it does not simply denote the fact of existence, but signifies a living and actual presence. When God tells Moses ‘I am who I am’ (Ex 3:14), this means ‘I live, I am here, I am together with you’. At the same time this name emphasizes the superiority of God’s being over all other beings. He is the independent, primary, eternal being, the plenitude of being which is above being.
Ancient tradition tells us that after the Babylonian captivity, the Jews refrained out of reverential awe from uttering the name Yahweh, the One Who Is. Only the high priest could do so, and this once a year on the day of Yom Kippur, when he went into the Holy of Holies to offer incense. If an ordinary person or even a priest wanted to say something about God, he substituted other names for Yahweh, usually the name Adonai (the Lord). In script the Jews indicated the word ‘God’ by the sacred tetragrammaton YHWH. The ancient Jews knew well that there was no name or word in human language that could convey the essence of God. In refraining from pronouncing the name of God, the Jews showed that it is possible to be at one with God not so much through words and descriptions, but through a reverential and trembling silence.