Why is it called an “inauguration”?

The etymology of inauguration is one “for the birds.”

Today marks the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States. This historic moment raises lots of questions. Like Why?

Why does the transfer of power take place on January 20? In 1933, Congress ratified the 20th Amendment, which moved up the inauguration from March 4 to January 20. Way back when, new officials required much more time to prepare for their office, creating a very long “lame duck” period after the November elections.

And why do we call it an inauguration? For the origin of this quadrennial word, we’ll have to look to the skies – and Ancient Rome.

Inauguration

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Eagles…or vultures? Ancient Rome and the US in 2017 have a lot in common, like big policy decisions being made on the basis of the flight of birds in the sky. Image by Sergio Sanchez, courtesy of freeimages.com

English inaugurated the word inauguration no later than the 1560s, according the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Transferred from the French inauguration, the word ultimately hails from the Latin verb, inaugurāre, “to take omens from the flight of birds,” a practice known as augury.

Ancient Roman augury was quite a complex art. But to put it simply, augurs were priests who advised governmental officials by divining the future based on the flying, singing, and feeding of birds, whose behaviors were clues to the will of gods. Before a new leader was installed into power, augurs observed the skies – or, in some cases, into the entrails of a sacrificial victim – for a sign from a bird, whose appearance meant the gods approved the accession. They took their auspices in a space they called the templum, also used of sacred buildings, hence temple.

The Roman inauguratio became a ritual “consecration,” then “ceremonial induction into office,” used of presidencies today. The word inauguration broadened to any “formal beginning” by the middle of the 19th century. The adjective inaugural is recorded by the 1680s, while the noun, short for inaugural speech or address, is first cited in 1832.

The Latin base of inaugurāre, it takes no soothsayer to discern, is augur. The origin of this word is disputed. Many have interpreted augur as avis (“bird,” cf. aviary) and garrire (“to talk,” cf. garrulous). Others see gerere (“to do, conduct, manage”) instead of garrire. These etymologies would make augurs a kind of “bird-talker” or “bird-conductor.” Tempting explanations they are indeed, as another Latin word for augur, auspex, literally means “bird-looker.” English’s auspices comes from the plural form of auspex.

But augur more likely comes from a different root: augēre, “to increase.”  The Latin augur, so the thinking goes, marked some sort of a ritual hoping to bring about an “increase in the growth of crops.” The details here, and its connection to historic augury, are vague. 

Augēre certainly increased English vocabulary, providing such words as auction, augment, August, author, and auxiliary. Its deeper root, the Proto-Indo-European *aug-, yielded the Old English eacian, also meaning “to increase.” Eacian survives in eke out, with an original sense of “making something last longer,” and nickname, which speakers smushed together from an eke name, or “an additional name.”

For many, though, Trump’s inauguration is about another kind of eking: Eek. But in today’s politics, it’s hard to predict – or should we say, augur – just about anything anymore.   

m ∫ r ∫

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4 thoughts on “Why is it called an “inauguration”?

  1. A very interesting post you have on the inauguration. As I read it, the first thing that came to my mind was dodo birds or ostriches with their heads buried in the sand. Please excuse me for that, I guess. The Press Corps looked as if there was a giant flying creature ready to carry them off to an abyss in Hell.

    Liked by 1 person

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