First, my last on pontiff was recently Freshly Pressed by WordPress. Be sure to check it out if you missed it.
Now, speaking of the Pope, if you’re in D.C., New York, or Philadelphia this week, you may want to snag some papal swag. Perhaps an “I (mitre) the pope” t-shirt? Seeking a humbler pontificate, Pope Francis might prefer his zucchetto over his mitre (or miter), but, if he truly wants to build bridges, he should put on that special high, arched, and cleft ceremonial headdress. For the etymology of mitre bridges – or should I say, weaves together – the microscopic, the macroscopic, and just about everything in between.
Papal hats and baseball caps
According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), English first dons mitre in Wycliffe’s Bible during the late 1300s. In one passage, mitre refers to the “ceremonial turban of a high priest,” from which we eventually inherit today’s term for this episcopal headgear.
But historically, mitre wore many hats. Even in other passages of Wycliffe’s Bible we see other meanings the word had in its French, Latin, and, ultimately, Greek sources. As Liddell and Scott observe, the Ancient Greek μίτρα (mitra) was a “headband worn by Greek women to tie up their hair.” It was also a “Persian headdress or turban.” Principally, though, a mitra was a “belt or girdle worn around the waist beneath the cuirass.”
The OED also historically observes the mitre as “an Asian headdress,” curiously adding, “the wearing of which by men was regarded by the Greeks and Romans as a mark of effeminacy.” Speaking of turbans and curious associations, childhood friends of Yogi Berra, whom we lost this week, once “watched a feature [film] that had a Hindu fakir, a snake charmer who sat with his legs crossed and wore a turban on his head,” explains the Society for American Baseball Research. “When the yogi got up, he waddled and one of the boys joked that he walked like Lawdie. From then on Berra was known as Yogi.” (Lawdie was his Italian parents’ pronunciation of his given name, Lawrence).
Driving cells, driving cars
Now, some suppose that Greek’s μίτρα is derived from another Greek word, μίτος (mitos), “a thread of the warp” in weaving. The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (AHD) sees a common thread for mitra and mitos in the Proto-Indo-European root *mei-, “to tie.”
German scientists spun the Greek mitos into mitosis and mitochondrion. By 1887, Walther Flemming likened to threads the chromosomes he observed during the process of what he called mitosis. In 1898, Carl Benda saw the chain-like engines of cells, which he dubbed mitochondria, as “thread granules.” The name of another German scientist – Rudolf Diesel – is remembered in the name of a different kind of engine, the manipulation of which scandalized Volkswagen this week.
Looking to the heavens
Fibers can be tied together. So can people, forming a “contract” or “friendship,” as the AHD glosses the Indo-Iranian descendant of *mei-, *mitram. This concept, sacred to ancient peoples (not to mention modern ones, too), was “divinized as a god,” the AHD goes on. Specifically, *mitram was represented in the Persian Mithras, the god of light, and the Vedic Mitra, also associated with the sun. Buddhists await the Maitreya, a future bodhisattva, successor to the Buddha and the Sanskrit root shared by Mitra.
Jordan Shipley observes that we see sacred bonds also formed in the Judaic tradition, viz. the covenants struck between Noah and Moses and God, respectively. The kingly title of rulers, Mithridates, is considered a theophoric form of Mithras.
The name of a current ruler, Vladimir Putin, who made headlines by asking to meet with Barack Obama next week, is from the Old Church Slavonic Vladimirŭ, meaning “ruling peace,” ironically enough, many might say. The Slavic *mirŭ is believed to mean “commune,” “joy,” or “peace,” according to the AHD, a sense preserved in Russian’s mir. For the connecting sense, think “bound together,” a lesson that would behoove our world leaders.
Out of this world, huh? That would be Mir, as in the former space station, named for this Russian word for “peace” and “world.”
Whew! Some of my connections may be a bit threadbare. But mitre, if etymology is any measure, turns out to be not only a Catholic word, but a truly catholic word as well.
10 thoughts on “On popes, baseball, & engines”
my middle school English students just finished a lesson on etymology and i think that the things you have written will be a help in the future. Thanks
It’s new for me because I am from Cambodia so it is nice to me. Thanks so much
In dissecting the heart, if Renaissance-era anatomists stood at the head of the cadaver, the “bicuspid” valve between the left atrium and ventricle, seemed to them to have the appearance of their bishop’s miter. Hence, the analogous bisyllabic term for this bicuspid left atrioventricular valve, carried down to this day.
And in the world of botany bearing the same analogy of the anatomical ‘mitral valve’ there’s the plant genus Mitella (mitra + diminutive suffix -ella) slender perennial herbs with a pod slightly resembling a bishop’s mitre commonly called “mitreworts” and “bishop’s caps”.
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The mitral valve indeed! I love that so many anatomical terms seem so difficult today, but their origins lie in their likening to fairly everyday objects.
Always interesting to learn new words.
By the way, you’ve been chosen as one of today’s nine blogs in That’s So Jacob’s Ninth Month Blog Challenge (http://www.thatssojacob.wordpress.com)! I challenge you to find nine blogs you find interesting and give them a comment to brighten their day…well, eight other blogs and mine 🙂 Copy this message in your comment and enjoy your new blog friends!
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Biblical scholars have conjectured that the distinctive bicuspid shape of the ecclesiastical mitre is due to the symbolism of the “cloven tongues of fire” described in Acts 2:3 “And there appeared to them tongues as of fire distributing themselves, and they rested on each one of them.” ie. “The pouring forth of the Spirit upon the apostles, in this form of cloven tongues, as of fire, was indeed the means of rebuilding Jerusalem, in a spiritual sense; or of founding the Gospel church state in the world” Or of course it could be a nifty bit of retcon to use the TV industry screenwriter parlance (retroactive + continuity) by biblical commentators or perhaps they just had a liking for ornately decorated pointy hats? 😉
Aren’t there also arguments that the mitre is supposed to resemble a fish, connecting it to a Babylonian god of some sorts?
The Catholic Encyclopedia says that he pontifical mitre is of Roman origin: it is derived from a non-liturgical head-covering distinctive of the pope, the camelaucum. The camelaucum was worn as early as the beginning of the eighth century. The camelaucum was worn by the pope principally during solemn processions. The mitre developed from the camelaucum in this way: in the course of the tenth century the pope began to wear this head-covering not merely during processions to the church, but also during the subsequent church service. Whether any influence was exerted by the recollection of the sacerdotal head-ornament of the high-priest of the Old Testament is not known, but probably not–at least there is no trace of any such influence. It was not until the mitre was universally worn by bishops that it was called an imitation of the Jewish sacerdotal head-ornament.