General English

Origin & History of “jubilee”

Despite their similarity, jubilee has no etymological connection with jubilation (14th c.) and jubilant (17th c.); but they have exerted a considerable influence on it over the centuries. It was originally a Hebrew word: Hebrew yōbhēl meant ‘leading animal, ram’, and by extension ‘ram’s horn’, and since a ram’s horn was blown to announce the start of a special year (set aside once every fifty years according to ancient Hebrew law) in which slaves were freed, land left untilled, etc, the term yōbēl came to be used for the year itself. Greek took it over as iṓbēlos and formed an adjective from it, iōbēlaios. This was passed on to Latin, and it was here that jubilation took a hand. Latin jūbilāre (source of English jubilation) originally meant simply ‘call out’, but early Christian writers used it for ‘shout for joy’. under its influence Greek iōbēlaios became Latin jūbilaeus, which was used in the expression annus jūbilaeus to denote this special Jewish year. It soon came to be used as a noun in its own right, and in this role passed via Old French jubile into English. By this time the ideas of ‘fifty years’ and ‘joy, celebration’ had mingled to such an extent that the word was being used for a ‘fiftieth anniversary’ or its celebration, a sense which remained current until the early 20th century (in present-day English it means simply ‘anniversary’, usually of a monarch’s accession, and the period involved has to be defined by golden, silver, etc).