Word History

A Revelation on Confessional Words

The history of 'confess' and more

What to Know

Confess entered the English language in the 14th century referring to the admission of sin or wrongdoing. It can also refer to revealing something purposefully kept hidden or secret. In these uses confession exists both in public and private, often religious, contexts.

confession booth window

'Confess' traces to the Latin 'confessus,' the past participle of 'confitēri' ("to confess").

It would be a mistake to try to estimate when the ancient word sin was formed in English because it goes back to the language's earliest records, the dates of which are approximations. We can, however, reveal the use and origin of the verb confess. It was admitted into the English language in the 14th century. Most commonly, it implies acknowledging or admitting a sin, wrong, or fault. It can also refer to declaring or disclosing something that you have kept or allowed to remain secret because it might be damaging or embarrassing to oneself ("She confessed her true feelings"; "The teenagers confessed their oddest childhood moments"). Confess might also be applied when admitting something as true, proven, or valid ("Unless you answer, the allegation shall be taken as confessed."). A priest might also confess. The verb can mean "to hear a confession" or "to receive the confession of."

I have confessed her, and I know her virtue.
— William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure, 1603-1604

A priest visited her, to confess her every day.
— Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography, ca. 1790

Origin of 'Confess'

The word traces to the Latin verb confessus, which is the past participle of confitēri, formed from the joining of the prefix com-, meaning "with or together," and the verb fatēri, "to confess." That Latin verb is related to fari, "to speak." The noun confession is used for the acknowledgment of sin or guilt in public or private (as to a priest or bishop) that is regarded in religions as necessary to obtain divine forgiveness; it, like the verb, enters English in the 14th century. In literature, confession is used to designate an autobiography, either real or fictitious, in which intimate and hidden details of the subject's life are revealed. Notable examples are The Confessions of St. Augustine (written about 400 A.D.) and Thomas De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1822). The related confessional is first professed as an adjective of the noun in the 17th century ("a confessional litany/fiction"), and then as a noun itself in the next century for a place where a priest hears confessions and later for the practice of confessing to a priest. Confessionary is synonymous with the adjective and noun confessional.

Auricular Confession

Auricular—or, less formally, "private"—religious confession became the usual procedure during the Middle Ages. Besides meaning "told privately," auricular has scientific senses relating to the sense of hearing. It is akin to auricle by way of auris, meaning "ear" in Latin. Auricle beats as a name for the atrium of a heart, which is an anatomical structure that resembles an ear, has ear-shaped pouches, and receives blood from the veins and forces it into the ventricle or ventricles.

Other Words Associated with 'Confession'

Another word that often closely follows such religious confession is absolution. It is from a Latin stem of absolvere, meaning "to set free, acquit, or finish." It should be noted that in some religions absolution specifies a sacred pronouncement of remission (that word, from the verb remit, means "forgiveness") of sin to the penitent, referring to a person who repents of sin. A priest absolves the penitent using formulaic phrases like "I absolve thee from thy sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" and "Almighty God have mercy upon you, and forgive you all your sins."

Reader, you may now go in peace—but only if you have read this from beginning to end. If you have not, your penance is to do just that.

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