I love this word. Most dictionaries simply define it as “charity or the giving of alms”. And yes, that is what it means. It derives from the medieval Latin word eleemosynarius, meaning “compassion, mercy”; that, in turn derives from the Greek word eleos, “pity”.
In English, technical words are often derived from either Latin or Greek. The Grammar Police insist that you Must Not use Greek endings with Latin roots, and vice-versa. So I am tickled that eleemonsynary is both Greek AND Latin; that’s one reason I like it.
The word alms has the same root, but followed a different linguistic evolution. The Greek root eleos became the Latin eleem- , as before, but then it danced over to Old High German and segued into Old English as almes. From there, a simple shortening gives us the modern alms. Not that the word is used much, except perhaps in the theatre, where beggars routinely chant “alms for the poor!”
The word charity – one definition for eleemosynary – has unfortunate connotations these days. It brings up images of well-off people giving cast-offs, or perhaps bowls of gruel, to poor unfortunates. Our Puritan heritage waxes and wanes on this, but there is an implication that some moral defect or character flaw caused their misfortune. In the political arena today, the talk is of having made “bad choices”. In that worldview, the unfortunate are more than a little to blame for their situation.
By implication, conversely, the fortunate can take credit for being in a good situation. They made good choices. Luck or circumstances had nothing to do with it. And if the fortunate deign to help out the unfortunate, well, then they can feel doubly good about being so noble and generous.
This is not what charity was originally about. Charity derives from Latin caritatem (nom. caritas) meaning “costliness, esteem, affection”. In the Vulgate Bible, it was the normal translation of the Greek word agape. (Agape could also be translated into Latin as amor, but as amor could also mean sexual love, it was avoided.) Agape was also translated using the word dilectio, meaning “loving esteem”; this most often was used when the context referred to particular people. Caritas was the preferred translation when speaking in the abstract, when “loving-kindness to all” was implied.
When the Latin Vulgate was translated into English, caritas was translated as “charity”, while dilectio was translated as “love”. However, in the original Greek, they were the same word, agape. Later, in the Revised Version of 1881, the caritas/dilectio distinction was dropped and all occurances of agape were translated into English as “love”.
So it is fair to say the original meaning of charity was “loving-kindness to all”, a general expression of love. You express charity to others because they are fellow human beings. Charity is simply expressing loving-kindness as best you can. If others are in need, you help, because of that love.
To make it a matter of winners and losers, of somehow earning brownie points with God by giving something to those poor unfortunates, is a perversion of the very idea of charity. God’s love IS charity; human charity is a reflection of that love.
“For God so loved the world …” (John 3:16): “Οὕτως γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ Θεὸς τὸν κόσμον” could also be translated “This is how God gave charity to the world”.