Q. Where do we get the word daven (the colloquial Yiddish word for praying)?
A. Jewish popular etymology (e.g. the Sefer Ta’amei HaMinhagim) derives the term from the Aramaic d’avuhon, “of our fathers”, suggesting a link with the Talmudic statement, “The avot, the patriarchs, ordained the daily services” (Ber. 26b). Another Aramaic derivation (proposed by Avigdor Chaikin) cites the Talmudic phrase, ka davai lamizrach, “gazing wistfully to the east” (Shab. 35a).
However, it is not until the Takkanot (communal regulations) of Cracow, 1595, that the term davenen is first found, and for the next 200 years there seem to be no more than six further literary references, which is strange if it is an ancient term with Talmudic origins.
It is more likely that it has entered Jewish usage from some other language. The possibilities include Arabic (from diwan, a collection of poems or prayers), French (from devoner, to devote or dedicate), Latin (from divin, Divine) and even English (from dawn). An analogy is the custom of Jewish in German-speaking lands to use oren for “to pray”, coming originally from the Latin ora.
In an article entitled “The Etymology of Davenen” in the Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research, vol.28, 1959, Judah A Joffe states that the word daven came into Yiddish from Slavic, as did zaide, bobbeh, tateh, mameh, etc. He derives daven from a Lithuanian/Latvian word for present, gift or tribute.
However, a study by Mordechai Kosover of a 15th century Yiddish book of customs (in “For Max Weinrich on His 70th Birthday”, 1964) concludes that the word is from Middle High German doenen, to sing, play or sound.
Judah Joffe warns against popular theorising about the origin of words, which can lead to such absurdities as saying that “roof garden” comes from the Yiddish, m’muz gehn aruf or that a “restaurant” is so named because er esst araan.