Saturday, March 4, 2000

Pious beginnings

WHEN you look at an artefact in a museum or gaze at a fossil, the feeling is of looking at the past and it is as if the object carries a thin patina of the past with it. Words are also like these objects that tell the story of past civilisations. Some areas of human existence have made an enormous contribution to our lexis. Religion is one such area; and like all other realms, changes in man’s religious practices have brought about changes in the terms connected with religion as well. It is an absorbing pursuit to study words that described pagan practices but through the passage of time have become a part of our secular vocabulary.

Auspicious, for instance. Auspicious is from the Latin auspicium, formed of avis, bird, and specio, see. The ancient priest and soothsayer watched the flight and feeding of birds, listened to their cries and even examined their entrails; so that they could learn the wishes of the gods, hence predict the future. If the signs came out well, the occasion was auspicious, or of good omen. To the ancient Greeks and Romans, omens were the mysterious signs of things to come; while for us, a mere opinion poll result before election becomes an omen. The word contemplate was also born in a temple. When the Roman priests contemplated, it meant that they were considering the signs revealed in the sacred temple. For, the word is made up of con, meaning with, and templum meaning temple.

  ‘God bless you’ is an expression most of us use liberally to express affection or gratitude. If the origin of the word bless were known some of us would be less liberal with it, perhaps. For the phrase means, literally, ‘God bathe you in blood’. Bless comes from the old English bledsian which meant ‘to sprinkle with blood’, the verb being a derivative of the noun blod — just as the heathen priest of old sprinkled blood from the sacrifice over the worshippers to give them magical power or virtue. In later English, the term became blessen, and the term finally came to mean consecrated.

Passion comes from the Latin passio or suffering and Christianity carried the word into English as the passion or suffering of Christ during the Crucifixion. Towards the end of the fourteenth century, passion began to signify such powerful emotions as anger, rage and the tender passion, love. The original meaning is retained in compassion, the Latin com meaning with, i.e. to suffer with somebody. The fruit passion fruit, is named so because the passion flower has parts that bear a resemblance to the Crown of Thorns and the other instruments of the Crucifixion. Today, however, it has come to represent sexual love in accordance with the semantic broadening of the word.


Semantic broadening is a feature of evolution in every language; the causes and catalysts may vary from one to the other. In Hindi, adjectives taken from Sanskrit sometimes take on added meaning by functioning as nouns as well, Ishwar as in God was used in Sanskrit as an adjective in the sense of lord and master, especially in Vedic times. The word as God can be found in Marathi, Gujarati and Bengali as well.

— Deepti