“Superstition”: an unlucky etymology?

It’s Friday the 13th—a day of bad luck, if you are superstitious person, and a great occasion to look at the origin of the word superstition.

Got that #FridayFeeling? (Pixabay)

Very “superstitious”

The word superstition is first found in an important, early 13th-century monastic manuscript, the Ancrene Riwle, when it characterized “excess.” By the late 1300s, as evidenced in Wycliffe’s Bible, superstition was shading towards its modern sense, signifying an “irrational religious belief,” especially one that was “excessively credulous or reverential.”

Come 1609, Shakespeare’s lesser-read Romance, Pericles, showed superstition settling into its current notion of a “widely held but irrational irrational belief in supernatural influences, especially as leading to good or bad luck,” as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) helps us out here and above.

See a pattern? Superstitions are about “too much,” and this is thanks to its Latin root, superstare, “to stand over.” Super means “above,” “on the top,” “in addition to” (hence superior, superlative, superman, supersede) and stare “to stand” (status, station and countless other English derivatives, not to mention a close relationship to English’s own stand).

Out of superstare, the Ancient Romans fashioned the word superstitio, literally a “standing over,” but in actual use, drawing from a variety of glosses: an “unreasoning religious belief or awe”; a “blind adherence to the rules”; “excessive fear of the gods”; “foreign or non-orthodox religious practice”; or “prophecy” and “sorcery.”

Folk beliefs, folk etymologies

What’s the link between “standing over” and an “irrational belief”? We get the sense that superstitions place “too much” credence or effort in some belief or practice, hence super. But as for “standing”? This one still puzzles etymologists.

The OED notes a few theories. One goes that superstitious religious practices were “superfluous” or “redundant,” that is, “standing over” what was called for. Others look to the extended meanings of superstare itself: “to survive” or “remain.” A related adjective, superstes, was used of soldiers “standing over” the body of a defeated enemy in triumph, which jumped to  a sense of “superiority” and on to an idea of preternatural power, leading to “prophecy” or “sorcery.”

Even the Romans themselves had their own ideas. Cicero attributed superstitio to parents with “excessive religious devotion in order that their children might survive,” as the OED explains, adding, though, that this is probably folk etymology. We might say he was a bit, er, superstitious about the origin of superstition?

Macabre mouthfuls 

The exact sense development of superstition is unclear—as is the origin of the today’s particular superstition. Some have linked fear of Friday the 13th to accounts of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion on a Friday, with 13 individuals present, Jesus and his 12 apostles, during his Last Supper the night before.

One thing is for sure, though. Fear of Friday the 13th does technically have a name: paraskevidekatriaphobia. The word joins Greek roots for paraskevi (“Friday”) and dekatria (“thirteen”) to the suffix –phobia, based on the Greek for “fear.” It’s quite the mouthful, and was intended to be so. As linguist and author Kerry Maxwell explains at the Macmillan Dictionary:

The term paraskevidekatriaphobia was first coined in the early nineties by Dr. Donald E. Dossey, an American psychotherapist specialising in phobias and stress management, who reputedly claimed that when someone was able to pronounce the word they were cured.

Trying saying that three times fast today….just don’t say “Bloody Mary” three times before a mirror while holding a candle in a dark room.

m ∫ r ∫

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