“Redeeming” etymological features

Towering over the city, arms outstretched, is Christ the Redeemer. Built in the 1920s, this 100-foot statute of Jesus Christ is an icon of Rio de Janeiro and the 2016 Olympics Games it’s hosting. But if we were speaking the English of the Middle Ages, we’d be calling this monument by another, less pious-sounding name: Christ the Ransomer.

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Christ the Redeemer is not trying to accept your money. “Christ on Corcovado Mountain.” Image by Artyominc via Wikimedia Commons.

From money…

Latin had a verb, redimere, literally “to buy back.” The verb had a lot of purchasing power, so to speak, but one of its most basic meanings was “to buy the release of a slave from captivity.” As a verb, redimere joins red-, a combining form of re-, “back,” and emere, “to buy,” and takes a noun form of redemptio. This emere also yields many other English words, from assume, example, and exempt to premium, sample, and even vintage.

Now, redemptio underwent some changes in French, some obvious and some not-so-obvious. Through some serious smushing, redemptio became ransom. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites ransom as early as 1225, referring to “a sum of money paid for pardon from an offense.” By 1325, we see the modern sense of ransom (i.e., with respect to hostages). It’s right around this time when we also see redemption, then meaning, like its original Latin, “freeing a prisoner, captive, or slave by payment.” Redemption, as you can tell, experienced a much less dramatic evolution in French, coming into English from the Anglo-Norman redempcioun.

By the late 1300s and early 1400s, we see ransom and ransomer emerge as Christian theological terms: “deliverance from sin and damnation by Jesus Christ.” Redeem and redemptor appear by 1438. Redeemer, which form now prevails, is attested by 1475. French may have anticipated the eventual distinction between ransom and redemption, as redempcioun was first used for Jesus Christ’s spiritual redemption.

…to metaphor

But why the monetary metaphor? In Christian belief, Jesus Christ sacrificed his life to save humanity from sin. We can understand this as a kind of transaction: He pays for humanity’s sins with his life, he releases mankind from the captivity of evil and damnation with the payment or concession of his life. They say money is the root of all evil. For Christians, money metaphors are apparently the root of all salvation, too.

Over the centuries, we stretched redeem out to its other familiar senses. By the late 1400s, redeem was signifying “to restore,” specifically “to a former, better state” by the late 1500s. The 17th century witnesses redeem “making amends.” It’s not until 1897, according to the OED, that redeem starts cashing in, say, coupons. The usage is American in origin.

Now, many economists question whether hosting the Olympic Games actually pays off. (Some might even say it’s a ransom payment for global attention.) But this summer, after political scandal, recession, and Zika, Brazil may not be looking for any monetary redemption per se. Instead, it may be looking up to its iconic Redeemer, and back to the history of the word, for a more metaphorical redemption – in the eyes of its people and in of the world. So far, it’s looking pretty auspicious for Rio 2016.

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What is the “pall” pallbearers bear?

Muhammad Ali will be laid to rest in his hometown, Louisville, Ky., today. The distinguished boxer will have some distinguished pallbearers for his memorial processional, including actor Will Smith alongside Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson, fellow champions in the ring. But what is this pall that they will be bearing?

Pallbearer

Today, pallbearers carry the coffin at a funeral. But historically, they held the four corners of a pall, or the cloth spread over the coffin. This tradition originated in the Middle Ages, apparently, though the custom of covering the dead is ancient. According to some accounts, pallbearers held the pall in place as other men or a vehicle bore the casket to a church. Others indicate pallbearers carried the pall into a church and ceremonially touched or held it during a service.

The funeral pall has been draping the English language since the 1400s but the word is documented in Old English as pæll. This pall originally referred to a rich cloth, often purple, that robed high-ranking persons or covered a church altar, where they are still in use today.

Old English derives its pæll from the Latin pallium, a “covering” or “cloak.” In Ancient Rome, pallia, to use the Latin plural, first referred to the cloaks worn by Greek philosophers, later by Christians who eschewed the native toga. Latin’s pallium is related to palla, a “robe,” “cloak,” or “mantle,” but the ultimate origin is obscure.

By the 1500s, we see pall transferred from rich robes and altar cloths to general coverings. By the 1700s, the cloth’s associations with funerals cast a pall of darkness and gloominess over the word. Pale, pallor, and appalled are unrelated; these derive from the Latin pallēre, “to be pale,” whose Indo-European root means, oddly enough, “dark-colored.”

The Oxford English Dictionary specifically attests pallbearer by 1707, while the Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology notes the word shifted to its current sense of coffin-bearing by the early 1900s.

Muhammad Ali’s passing definitely casts its pall, but his legacy will need no bearer: It stands on it own, like a champion raising his gloves in victory.

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Clerk (Part I)

County clerk Kim Davis went back to work yesterday after being released from jail over her refusal to issue same-sex marriage licenses in Rowan Co., Ky. Let’s have a closer look at her job description. Etymologically, that is.

Over the centuries, "clerk" has taken on different registers. "Register."  Ink on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.
Over the centuries, “clerk” has taken on many different registers. “Register.” Ink on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.

Clerk

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first records clerk in the late 900s. Way back then, it took the forms of cleric and clerc, among other forms, and referred to “an ordained minister” in the Christian Church. During the Middle Ages, literacy was largely the domain of the clergy, whose very name is also related to clerk, as are cleric and clerical. These clerks often put their literacy to use for various secular purposes, helping with accounts, records, and other transactions that required their book learning.

So, by the 1200s, a clerk more generally came to describe “a person who could read and write.” Thus, Chaucer writes of the Clerk of Oxenford, a “scholar” from Oxford. Alas, his tale is not of a dictionary, but of marriage, fittingly enough. This sense of clerk remains in a law clerk, say, who helps a judge research an issue or write her opinions.

By the 1500s, with the further spread of literacy, clerk took off its collar. The term came to refer to “an officer in charge of the records, correspondence, and accounts” of an organization, as the OED observes. Such record-keeping is demanded of administrative or office work, which is why we might call it clerical work. Today, this term can take a pejorative tone, ironically enough for the rare and specialized ability that literacy historically was. Now that’s a clerical error, no?

This record-keeping sense of clerk also continues today in county clerk. A county clerk in the US is often in charge of the county’s vital records, such as birth and death certificates and marriage licenses, as we’ve seen (or not) in Kim Davis’s case.

Records, correspondence, accounts? The books? Shops have those, and so shops have clerks. The OED documents this clerk, a North American usage for a “shop-assistant,” by 1790. Today’s retail clerk can have a thankless job, if the hellish depiction of it in Kevin Smith’s indie film Clerks is any measure – once again ironic, given the history of the word.

“Lots” of Clerks

So, there have been a lot of clerks over the years. If we consider that language is constantly changing and the meanings of words evolve, this is the “lot” of clerk.

Whether borrowed directly or through French, all of the clerkly words we’ve seen thus far –  clergyclerkcleric, and clerical, not to mention the name and surname Clark – derive from Late Latin’s clēricus, a “priest” or “clergyman.” The word is technically a substantive adjective, meaning “of or belonging to the clērus.Clērus means, well, “clergy.”

This Latin term was used in early church writings, as was Ecclesiastical Greek before it, from which Latin took this clērusEcclesiastical Greek had κληρικός (klerikos)itself a term for the “clergy.” Literally, however, it meant “pertaining to an inheritance.” As Liddell and Scott explain, the root of this κληρικός (klerikos) is κλῆρος (kleros), a “lot,” as in “drawn by lots.” The term also was applied to “an allotment of land,” especially conquered foreign lands portioned out to citizens. English’s very own lot shares a similar sense development.

What could “inheritance” and “lot” possibly have to do with Christian ministry?  We’ll pick it up next post.

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