It suddenly occurred to me to wonder how, why, and when the mighty Biblical cherub was reduced to a synonym of the silly little putto. I still don’t know the answer to that, because when I checked the OED (1889 entry) I was distracted by the long and complicated history of the word and its confusion of forms:

Old English and Middle English cherubin, Middle English and modern cherub; derived (through French, Latin, Greek) from the Hebrew of the Old Testament, where k’rūb, plural k’rūbīm, are used as explained below. […] From Hebrew the word was adopted without translation by the LXX as χερούβ, χερουβίμ (-ίν, -είν), also in the N.T., Hebrews ix. 5, and by the Vulgate as cherūb, cherūbīn, cherūbīm (the latter in the Clementine text). As the plural was popularly much better known than the sing. (e.g. in the Te Deum), the Romanic forms were all fashioned on cherubin, viz. Italian cherubino, plural –i, Spanish querubin, -es, Portuguese querubin, cherubin, French cherubin, plural –s.
The earliest English instances are of cerubin, cherubin, taken over from ecclesiastical Latin apparently as a foreign word, and treated implicitly as a singular, sometimes as a proper name, at other times as a collective. From the Middle English period, the popular forms were, as in French, cherubin singular, cherubins plural. Cherubin survived in popular use to the 18th cent.; but in the Bible translations, cherub was introduced from the Vulgate by Wyclif, was kept up by the 16th cent. translators, and gradually drove cherubin into the position of an illiterate form. In the plural, cherubins is found from the 13th cent.; and although in MSS. of the earlier Wyclifite version, cherubyn is more frequent (after the Vulgate), the later version has always cherubins; this was retained in ordinary use till the 17th cent. But in the 16th cent., acquaintance with the Hebrew led Bible translators to substitute cherubims: this occurs only once in Coverdale, but always in the Bishops’ Bible and version of 1611. From the beginning of the 17th cent., cherubim began to be preferred by scholars (e.g. Milton) to cherubims, and has gradually taken its place; the Revised Version of 1881–5 has adopted it. A native plural cherubs arose early in the 16th cent.; in Tyndale, Coverdale and later versions (but not in that of 1611) it occurs beside cherubins, -ims; it is now the ordinary individual plural, the Biblical cherubim being more or less collective.

Briefly then, cherubin, cherubins are the original English forms, as still in French. But, in the process of Biblical translation, cherubin has been supplanted by cherub; and cherubins has been ‘improved’ successively to cherubims, cherubim; while, concurrently, cherub has been popularly fitted with a new plural cherubs.

The foreign form of the plural, coupled with the vagueness of the meaning in many passages, led to curious grammatical treatment even in MSS. of the LXX: here the Hebrew singular and plural are normally reproduced as χερούβ, χερουβίμ (the latter taken in Gen. iii. 24 as a neuter plural, as it is in Hebrew ix. 5), yet in Ps. xviii. 10 […] and in 2 Chron. iii. 11, the Hebrew singular k’rūb (of the Masoretic text) is represented by χερουβίμ, treated as a neuter singular (ἐπὶ τῷ χερουβίμ, τοῦ χερουβὶμ τοῦ ἑτέρου). In the former case the Vulgate follows the LXX with cherubim. Since, in the Latin, there is, in many passages, nothing to show the number of cherubin, it is no cause of surprise that readers often took it as singular, and it is actually used as a singular (masculine or neuter) in many mediæval Latin hymns and litanies.

The history of the sense, or notion attached to the word, lies outside English, though English use reflects all its varieties. In the Old Testament the cherubim are ‘living creatures’ with two or four wings, but the accounts of their form are not consistent: cf. the earlier notices with those of Ezekiel’s vision (Ezek. i, x). They first appear in Genesis iii. 24, as guardians of the tree of life. This name was also given to the two images overlaid with gold placed with wings expanded over the mercy-seat in the Jewish tabernacle and temple, over which the shekinah or symbol of the divine presence was manifested. A frequent expression for the Divine Being was ‘he that dwelleth (or sitteth) between (or on) the cherubim’. Psalm xviii. 10 (also contained in 2 Sam. xxii. 11) says of Jehovah ‘He rode upon a cherub (LXX. cherubim), and did fly’. It is in connection with this class of passages that the word first appears in English, and it is difficult to know exactly how the word was construed or used. The inclusion of the cherubim among angels appears to belong to Christian Mysticism. According to the 4th cent. work attributed to Dionysius the Areopagite, the heavenly beings are divided into three hierarchies, each containing three orders or choirs, viz. (according to the received order) seraphim, cherubim, thrones; dominions, virtues (δυνάμεις), powers; principalities, archangels, angels. Cherubim were thus made the second of the nine orders, having the special attribute of knowledge and contemplation of divine things. Their angelic character is that which chiefly prevails in later notions and in Christian art.

What a mess!
In Byron’s wonderful 1821 dramatic poem Cain, Cain’s sister-wife Adah nicely distinguishes the orders thus: “I have heard it said/ The seraphs love most—cherubim know most—/ And this [Lucifer] should be a cherub—since he loves not.” Does anyone still read Cain, which was so popular in the nineteenth century? They should; it reminds me of the novels of Olaf Stapledon in its exhilarating sweep of ideas and vision of the universe. This passage is pure science fiction, with Lucifer’s response reminiscent of James Blish’s A Case of Conscience (Lucifer is carrying Cain through space, farther and farther from Earth):

Lucifer. Point me out the site
Of Paradise.
Cain. How should I? As we move
Like sunbeams onward, it grows small and smaller.
And as it waxes little, and then less,
Gathers a halo round it, like the light
Which shone the roundest of the stars, when I
Beheld them from the skirts of Paradise;
Methinks they both as we recede from them,
Appear to join the innumerable stars
Which are around us; and as we move on
Increase their myriads.
Lucifer. And if there should be
Worlds greater than thine own, inhabited
By greater things, and they themselves far more
In number than the dust of thy dull earth,
Though multiplied to animated atoms,
All living, and all doom’d to death, and wretched,
What wouldst thou think?


  1. In Russian, Seraphim turned singular too. And Kheruvim can be used to any plump child, of a wingless variety, usually in its diminutive form херувимчик.

  2. marie-lucie says

    The French word is un chérubin(s), always with three stressed syllables, not cherubin(s) which would imply that the e (schwa) of the first syllable could be omitted in speech.
    The word can also be used of an adorable baby or toddler, although that use would now sound literary and old-fashioned.

  3. marie-lucie says

    seraphim, cherubim, thrones; dominions, virtues (δυνάμεις), powers; principalities, archangels, angels
    Seraphim, cherubim, archangels and angels are represented with at least partially human form, but I have always found it hard to imagine those other “angelic” creatures, and how they fit into the general hierarchical scheme. Shouldn’t the archangels be at the top, above the angels? or are the angels themselves at the bottom of the scale?

  4. How did the -im turn into -in? I doubt that it is the substitution of the Aramaic -in plural for the Hebrew one. A scribal error? Jerome styling the word as if it were Greek? An early Latin sound change, similar to the Spanish word-final m>n?
    According to Klein, the Hebrew כְּרוּב is “related” to Akkadian karābu ‘blessed’, cognate (with metathesis) with the Hebrew barukh, as in Spinoza. An unrelated homonym means ‘cabbage’, a borrowing from Greek κράμβη, which is ultimately cognate with English ‘rumple’.

  5. David Marjanović says
  6. Cherubim und Seraphinen
    OK, that’s really weird.

  7. I hardly suppose I know anybody who wouldn’t rather be a success than a failure,
    Just as I suppose every piece of crabgrass in the garden would much rather be an azalea,
    And in celestial circles all the run-of-the-mill angels would rather be archangels or at least cherubim and seraphim,
    And in the legal world all the little process-servers hope to grow up into great big bailiffim and sheriffim.
    Indeed, everybody wants to be a wow,
    But not everybody knows exactly how.
    Some people think they will eventually wear diamonds instead of rhinestones
    Only by everlastingly keeping their noses to their grhinestones,
    And other people think they will be able to put in more time at Palm Beach and the Ritz
    By not paying too much attention to attendance at the office but rather in being brilliant by starts and fits.
    Some people after a full day’s work sit up all night getting a college education by correspondence,
    While others seem to think they’ll get just as far by devoting their evenings to the study of the difference in temperament between brunettance and blondance.
    Some stake their all on luck,
    And others put their faith in their ability to pass the buck.
    In short, the world is filled with people trying to achieve success,
    And half of them think they’ll get it by saying No and half of them by saying Yes,
    And if all the ones who say No said Yes, and vice versa, such is the fate of humanity that ninety-nine per cent of them still wouldn’t be any bettter off than they were before,
    Which perhaps is just as well because if everybody was a success nobody could be contemptuous of anybody else and everybody would start in all over again trying to be a bigger success than everybody else so they would have somebody to be contemptuous of and so on forevermore.
    Because when people start hitching their wagons to a star,
    That’s the way they are.
    —Ogden Nash, “Kindly Unhitch that Star, Buddy”
    m-l: Angels are indeed at the bottom of the scale, being responsible for the welfare of human individuals. The higher ranks deal with larger entities. Details at Wikipedia.

  8. “What a mess” and “really weird” indeed. Language issues aside, how did anyone ever take that crap seriously?

  9. Adelfons – read up on, say, String Theory and you’ll come to the same opinion (most of higher physics, really. Probably any human theory in the process of being worked out.)

  10. Probably any human theory in the process of being worked out.
    “Being elaborated” is perhaps more accurate. “Being worked out” sounds like getting ever nearer to the solution of a problem – which may be what is happening, or not. Elaborateness is more like a new, substitute problem. The fall-out ideas that appear as it decays and is simplified may be more useful than the original ones.

  11. From the WiPe: The Hebrew term cherubim is cognate with the Assyrian term karabu, Akkadian term kuribu
    You don’t suppose the Assyrians colonized Canada, bringing caribou with them ?!

  12. It must be the missing link to Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer.

  13. I spent a couple of months this year visiting my mother every day at a Welsh hospital. A very friendly North Welsh nurse there always called us cherub (as in, how are you cherub? and so on). I liked it!

  14. What did the cherubin say to the rabbin?

  15. AJP, surely people want chocolate, not carob, at Christmas.

  16. Yes, if they carobout you they’ll give you chocolate.

  17. Stu, just remember that the chaps advocating string theory don’t understand how a bicycle works. Mind you, neither did Einstein or Planck or Maxwell, and their theories have much to commend them.

  18. To understand why dearie is on about bicycles, see here.

  19. My point was merely that, in the long run, simplicity is preferable to elaborateness. It’s nice work if you can get it, and you can get it if you try.

  20. The occasional -in plural in the LXX and NT reflects a change that happened in the latest phase of spoken Hebrew, under the influence of the Aramaic that would soon displace it as a vernacular language and thus is not surprising. What is somewhat unexpected is the chi for a kaf with dagesh (which makes a k sound, not a kh sound). This is evidence of the fact that as late as Koine Greek chi indicated an aspirated k, like the default k in English. I checked out a few other transliterations of this in the LXX, and it seems somewhat consistent. Caleb = Chaleb; Kislev = Chaseleu.

  21. J. W. Brewer says

    Have the physicists figured out Cherubim-brand bicycles yet? See Fans of vintage Japanese bicycles can also be found online debating the worth of a 1970’s model called the Mizutani Seraph.)

  22. Ben: yes, I missed some parentheses above and thought that the LXX had all -im, and that the Vulgate changed some of them to -in. Actually the -in form is much commoner in the LXX than the -im form.

  23. Of course no discussion of Cherubs, Cherubim, and Cherubins would be complete without the story of Cherubina de Gabriak, the most famous literary mystification of Russia’s Silver Age. I searched through the past LH entries and Cherubina is mentioned in passing in 2 or 3 of them, but the mystery of the reclusive baroness and the demonic root found amid the Back Sea flotsam has never been retold. Both names are of Hebrew origin, apparently.

  24. An unrelated homonym means ‘cabbage’, a borrowing from Greek κράμβη
    Though presumably related by eggcornification, otherwise it’s hard to see how κράμβη would give kruv.

  25. David Eddyshaw says

    @Ben: the transliteration of Hebrew consonants in the LXX is fairly consistently: tav -> theta, kaph -> chi, peh -> phi, teth -> tau, qoph -> kappa, i.e. the pharyngeals or glottalized consonants (whichever they were) get mapped to Greek non-aspirates, the Hebrew plain voiceless stops get mapped to Greek aspirates.
    The situation has been confused by people trying to see evidence of the beghadhkephath phenomenon in LXX transliterations (there isn’t any, unsurprisingly, as if it existed in that stage of the language at all it must surely have been subphonemic) compounded with ignorance of the fact the in LXX times the Greek aspirates were still stops and had not yet become fricatives.

  26. in LXX times the Greek aspirates were still stops and had not yet become fricatives
    Though they were starting to; there are inscriptions at Pompeii (so at least a century before the Septuagint) that use Roman F for Greek phi, e.g. Dafne, fileto. But the fricative pronunciation seems to have remained a low-register phenomenon for several centuries afterwards.

  27. Cherubina de Gabriak
    Oho. Now I know what Bethany Mboya was all about.

  28. Angels, of course, also became much milder with centuries. Maybe it’s the same process at work here. It is a bit strange how the same language can have the Angel of Death and angelic as a general expression of beauty and innocence. Seraphims, on the other hand, remained completely in the religious domain.
    By the way. About missing Christianity in Russian 19-century highfalutin literature. As one of the (rare) counterexamples see The Prophet by a little known author ASP (there is a seraphim in there).

  29. Since when is the Septuagint younger than Pompeii?

  30. @David Eddyshaw: Thanks; that’s very interesting. I hadn’t realized it was quite so systematic. Explains things like “Philistines” and “Pharaoh” too. I was aware of theta = tav and tau = thet, which I always liked, since, historically speaking, that’s backwards. But I guess I’d never realized the beghadhkephath thing was that recent. Shows just how after the fact those Masoretes were.
    @TR: I’m also reminded of a Roman Jewish funerary inscription in Latin but with Greek letters that spelled “coniunx” with a zeta for the i, which is doubly informative.

  31. Since when is the Septuagint younger than Pompeii?
    Oops, you’re right. I don’t know why I thought it was 2C AD. Nemmind.

  32. I realize that it’s fun to claim that physicists don’t understand how bicycles work– but, as a matter of fact, the physics of bicycles is well-understood. For the record:
    1. The force that keeps a bicycle upright is friction between the wheels and the ground. To demonstrate this to yourself, imagine trying to keep a bicycle upright while riding on a sheet of ice. Gyroscopic effects are relatively small.
    2. The linkage between the front wheel and the bicycle frame is what conveys forces from the ground to the frame. The crucial detail is that tipping the bicycle frame from vertical to one side makes the front wheel rotate towards that direction.
    3. The Intertoobz have lots of information on this (and, as ever, some misinformation). You can look it up.

  33. David Eddyshaw says

    On the timing of the fricativisation of aspirated stops in Greek: according to Quintilian, Cicero made fun of a Greek witness for not being able to pronounce Latin ‘f’ properly.

  34. David Eddyshaw says

    @Ben: The Massoretic tradition is one of the linguistic wonders of the world. The more I learn about it, the more respect I have for it. But it seems to me that surprisingly little attention is paid to the fact that the Massoretes actually spoke Aramaic, and pronounced their Hebrew with a wholly Aramaic phonemic system, a fact which they themselves would have been largely unaware of, just as English speakers, untaught, cannot hear any difference between the various t-sounds in “stop”, “top” and “pot.”
    Personally, I suspect that the beghadhkephath system is itself basically Aramaic. Of course, it’s very nearly noncontrastive in the Tiberian system itself, and only fails to be so because of the complications engendered by “silent” schwas.
    The distribution of daghesh fortes of *initial* consonants of words within phrases after certain unstressed vowels correlates almost perfectly with the closeness of junctures noted in the Massoretic system by the cantillation marks. I found this out for myself and was correspondingly mightily impressed with the accuracy of the Massoretic system in its own terms.

  35. Yes, the Massoretic system is amazing. It reminds me of pre-Kepler descriptions of planetary motion: a system that’s fantastically elaborate because it’s based on a flawed premise. I get a similar vibe from Chomskyan linguistics and string theory, though I don’t really know enough to judge either fairly.
    The effect of cantillation is profound; I had an argument with a friend once who was trying to prove why the Yiddish version of the seventh commandment (or eighth, if you prefer) must be “loy tignev” (which it ain’t; it’s “loy signev”) because for the ten commandments you switch cantillation to “upper trope,” which forces there to be dageshim in places they wouldn’t be otherwise. At least I think that’s an instance of what you’re talking about.

  36. David Eddyshaw says

    @Ben: it was something a bit more specific than that.
    Generally, word-initial beghadhkephath consonants are spirantized after a word ending in a vowel when the two words are shown as in close juncture by maqqeph or by a “conjunctive” mark on the first word. But when the first word has undergone the shift of stress from a final qametz or seghol to the penult or antepenult before a second word which has initial stress, the initial consonant of the second word is geminated, i.e. gets an initial daghesh *forte*; this only happens if the vowel is seghol or qametz and only if the words are linked by maqqeph or a conjunctive mark, in which case it is amazingly regular (though see below.)
    Ruth 1:14 (end) for an example. v’Rut dav’qa-bbah. “but Ruth clung to her.”
    You can tell this is gemination and not just failure of spirantization because the daghesh appears in non-bgdkpt consonants too in these circumstances, eg Ruth 3:11
    For all I know this is well known by proper Hebrew scholars but I’ve not been able to find it described in a standard grammar; I was amazed to see how consistently the rule works in the Massoretic text. I always tended to think of the cantillation marks as a sort of squishy punctuation and was astonished to see how tightly and precisely the system interacts with other aspects of inter-word sandhi like word-initial spirantization within phrases. These Massorete guys knew what they were doing …
    The rule, interestingly *doesn’t* apply when a final de-stressed qametz belongs to a lamedh-he perfect form, or ends a feminine sg absolute noun form (though there aren’t many examples of that, naturally enough.) Presumably this means that the qametz in these forms was different in some way (length?) from that at the end of (say) the 3sgf perfect in verbs but it’s all too deep for me …

  37. Does Byron’s I have heard it said/ The seraphs love most—cherubim know most—/ And this [Lucifer] should be a cherub—since he loves not. have any bearing on this much later sentence?
    Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied.

  38. Does Byron’s [quote] have any bearing on this much later sentence?
    I doubt it. Nabokov certainly knew Byron well, but I don’t see any special connection between the Cain and Lolita quotes other than that they both mention seraphs.

  39. What I meant was, it’s well known that Nabokov was referring to Annabel Lee in that sentence, but it struck me that the emphasis on how “misinformed” the seraphs were could also be referring back to the Byron poem.

  40. Ah, I see what you mean. No, I think both are drawing on the traditional distinction between the orders of angels; Clement of Alexandria wrote that “The name Cherubim intends to show much understanding” (aisthesin pollen), and Steven Chase in his edited book Angelic Spirituality: Medieval Perspectives on the Ways of Angels writes:

    One of the primary themes within Christian spirituality, mysticism, and spiritual formation in general is that of the relation of knowledge and love. This theme, also expressed in terms of the relation between mind and heart, or between intellect and affect, is at the core of Christian angelic spirituality. Almost from its inception, the spiritual tradition of devotion to angels has used the Cherubim and Seraphim to illuminate this relation: the Cherubim, whose name in Hebrew means “fullness of knowledge,” have represented the path of knowledge, mind, or intellect, while the Seraphim, whose name means “burning” or “fiery,” have been interpreted as representing the path of love, heart, or affect.

  41. “The name Cherubim intends to show much understanding” (aisthesin pollen)
    the Cherubim, whose name in Hebrew means “fullness of knowledge”
    Where’d Clement get that, I wonder? Is he (or some Alexandrian rabbi he was talking to) deriving k-r-b from r-b “much”? Wherever he got it, though, modern scholars shouldn’t be parroting it.

  42. J. W. Brewer says

    Chase’s book deals exclusively with Western/Latin writers (some of whom, to be fair, were commenting on [Pseudo-?]Dionysus the Areopagite], so I wouldn’t assume without more inquiry that the particular distinction he’s talking about is universal or that Clement’s perhaps dubious etymology led all of the Greek Fathers in the same direction. Certainly the bit in the Liturgy where the faithful understand themselves to “mystically represent” the Cherubim (Οἱ τὰ Χερουβεὶμ μυστικῶς εἰκονίζοντες or Иже херувимы тайно образующе, as you may prefer) doesn’t easily fit into the proposed heart v. head dichotomy.

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