Pope Francis is visiting the US this week. His stances on climate change, homosexuality, divorce, and capitalism, among other issues, have been inspiring Catholics and non-Catholics alike. We might say he’s building bridges, a fitting description for a pontiff.
Pontiff crosses into English from the French pontif in the late 1500s. The word originally named a “bishop” or any “high priest” but eventually settled on one in particular: the bishop of Rome, or the Pope. French fashioned pontif from Latin’s pontifex, a title which is certainly not ancient history. You can find the Pope on Twitter. He’s @pontifex; at @pontifex_ln, he even tweets in Latin.
Pontifex connects two Latin words: pons, “bridge,” and –fex, a “maker,” from the verb facere. Pontifices were powerful priests in Ancient Rome who helped administer religious law, with the pontifex maximus heading their council, or collegium. Over time, emperors, including Julius Caesar, came to function as the pontifex maximus. Early Roman Catholic bishops borrowed the title in the 4th century, with the bishop of bishops, the Pope, eventually donning the supreme title along with his mitre.
Why bridge building? Ernest Weekley comments that “bridge-building has always been regarded as a pious work of divine inspiration.” Indeed, the Tiber-spanning Pons Sublicius, the oldest known bridge in the city, was sacred. In his History of Rome, Theodor Mommsen observes that the pontifices:
Derived their name from their function, as sacred as it was politically important, of conducting the building and demolition of the bridge over the Tiber. They were the Roman engineers, who understood the mysteries of measures and numbers…
Eric Partridge adds that ancient Rome was known as the “city of bridges.” Metaphorically, the name works, with priests “bridging” gods and men, which the Online Etymology Dictionary points out, but this may be due to folk etymology, as we’ll see.
Pons also had an earlier meaning in Latin: a “path,” “road,” “way,” or “passage.” Ernest Klein comments that the original meaning of pontifex was “waymaker” or “pathfinder.” Is this “way” also figurative? Well, Walter Skeat remarks that the early pontifex was “one who leads to the temple” or “leads the way in a procession. Jordan Shipley adds clergy in the Middle Ages helped pilgrims find the roads – and some argue oversaw their very construction – to sacred shrines. All roads lead to Rome, after all.
The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots grounds pons in the Proto-Indo-European *pent-, “to tread” or “go,” source of English’s path and find and even Russian’s sputnik.
Catholics may deem the Pope infallible, but none of these etymologies are. Pontifex, the “bridge builder,” may be the construction of folk etymology, which changes a word based on mistaken beliefs about its nature. Etymologists, including Weekley, suggest Oscan and Umbrian roots (puntis) meaning “propitiary offering.” Shipley connects this to the Greek pompe (πομπή), a “religious procession,” from a verb meaning “to send.” He goes on to say pontifex was originally pompifex. So, perhaps the more unfamiliar puntis or pompe was altered to resemble pontifex in sound and sense.
This Greek pompe produced the pomp in pomp and circumstance as well as pompous, which may characterize someone who is pontificating. This term began as “to perform the functions of a pontiff,” evolving to its current sense via the dogmatic decrees associated with powerful pontiffs. But for this pontifex, as we are seeing, pomp and pontification don’t build bridges. They burn them.