Usage of the word heathen in the last five centuries peaked dramatically several separate times: in the 1520s, 1590s, 1600s, 1640s, 1750s, and 1840s. Perhaps that's when people were feeling particularly religious. Today, the word refers to any individual(s) outside of the scope of a major religion, but when it was encompassed by the Middle English word hethen, it referred specifically to people who weren't Christians or Jews. Same goes for the Old English word haethen, which was merged with Old Norse heithinn, meaning "pagan", to create the precursor to today's term. Both of those derive from Proto-Germanic haithi, a word meaning "uncultivated soil" (because pagans were "religiously uncultivated"; this is also the etymon of English heathland, "shrublike infertile land"), from Proto-Indo-European skayt, or "clear"
Adam Aleksic is a 220-month-old, 2800-ounce high school senior with disturbing interests in etymology, vexillology, geography, board games, limericks, and law. Adam will be studying linguistics at Harvard College in the fall.
The Etymology Nerd