Guest blog by Dr. Richard Lederer
As Christians approach Easter, commemorating the resurrection of Jesus Christ, this seems like a good time to think about the influence of faith on the words we speak and hear and write and read every day.
We think of carnivals as traveling entertainments with rides, sideshows, games, cotton candy, and balloons; but the first carnivals were pre-Lenten celebrations — a last fling before penitence. The Latin word parts, carne, “meat, flesh,” and vale, “farewell,” indicate that the earliest carnivals were seasons of feasting and merrymaking, “a farewell to meat,” just before Lent.
The word religion itself derives from the Latin religionem, “respect for what is sacred.” Carnival is one of many words and expressions that began in religion. Because our society has become somewhat secularized, we overlook the religious foundation of our daily parlance:
- bonfire. Originally the bone fires that consumed the bodies of saints burned during the English Reformation.
- enthusiasm. From the Greek enthusiasmos, “a god within.” The word first meant “filled with God,” as did giddy, from Anglo Saxon gydig, “god-held man.”
- The Latin word for cross, crux, is embedded in the words crux, crucial, and excruciating, which has broadened from denoting the agony of the crucifixion to any kind of torturous pain.
- fan. A clipping of fanatic, “inspired by the temple.” The opposite, profane, describes a person who is irreverent and sacrilegious, from the Latin pro, “outside,” and fanum, “the temple.”
- good-bye. Our traditional farewell turns out to be a shortening of the sentence “God be with you.”
- holiday. Originally a “holy day,” descending from the Old English With the change in pronunciation has come a change in meaning so that holidays, such as Independence Day and Labor Day, are not necessarily holy.
- icon. In its original meaning, icon was a small religious painting used as an aid to devotion. In its new meaning, icons are now people who achieve superstar status in the worlds of politics, sports, the arts, and entertainment. Many consider this a debasement of a perfectly good word.
- red-letter day. So called because of calendar and almanac publishers printing the numbers of saints’ days and religious feast days in red ink. Such days now describe any distinctive day in a person’s life, such as birthdays, graduations, and the day the local sports team won a championship.
- short shrift. In bygone days, political offenders, military captives, and heretics were executed almost out of hand. There was but a thin pretense of justice in which the prisoner could confess (shrive) his sins to a priest and prepare his soul for death. Those who kept these unfortunate souls in thrall often allotted but a short time for confession, and this hurried procedure became known as short shrift. Nowadays, this compound means “to give scant attention, to make quick work of.”
- Why can story mean both “a tale” and “the level of a building”? Both words come to us from the Latin historia, “to know,” and French histoire, where it means both “a tale” and “the discipline history.” The endurance of the meanings “tale” and “floor” is architectural. In the Middle Ages, the custom in many parts of Europe was to paint scenes depicting historical, legendary, biblical, or literary subjects on the outside of the various floors of buildings. Each represented a story, and, before long, the levels themselves were called stories.
Dr. Richard Lederer is the author of 50 books about language, history, and humor, including the best-selling Anguished English series.
His column, “Lederer on Language,” is syndicated in newspapers and magazines throughout the U.S., and he is co-host of “A Way With Words” on KPBS Public Radio.
He has been named International Punster of the Year and Toastmasters International’s Golden Gavel winner. Richard is also a former Usage Editor of The Random House Dictionary of the English Language.
He has twice spoken at my Writing for the Soul conference to enthusiastic response. I am pleased to call him a friend and to share with you his guest blog.
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