From shoreline to sainthood: the origin of “canonize”

This Sunday, Pope Francis canonized Mother Teresa as a saint, joining her with 10,000 other such holy figures in the Catholic Church. That’s a lot of saints, but canonize is still a relatively rare word. So, why is this process called canonization?

“Reed.” Image by Viktors Kozers, courtesy of


To canonize is to place a deceased person in the Church’s canon of saints. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first cites this canonize around 1380. We can think of this canon, sometimes known as a calendar, as a kind of list; a saint’s placement on this register only takes place by official decree and according to the rules of the church. Indeed, canon means “rule” or “law,” originally of the church. This usage of canon, again as the OED dates it, is found in Old English by 890. 

While influenced by French in Middle English, the Old English canon comes from the Latin canon, a “rule” or “standard,” taken from the Greek κανών (kanon, meaning the same). (Medieval Latin had canonizāre, the immediate source of canonize.) If we dig deeper, we find that both the Latin canon and Greek kanon are metaphorical in origin: Latin canna and Greek κάννα (kanna) literally mean “reed.” A reed, as we might understand it, is like a proto-measuring rod. It sets a regular length, which can be used as a model, a standard, a rule for something, hence, its application to law.

The words canecannon, and canyon – reeds are tubular – are all related to canon. Generic canon, that is, secular rules or standards, is evidenced by the late 1500s and early 1600s. The canon of literature, at least according to the OED’s account, is found by the 1920s, anticipated by earlier such usages of canon in the mid-1800s. The secular canon, we should note, takes a page from the religious: Since the 1380s canon has also been referring to an authoritative list of books of the Christian Bible.

Excepting its secular extensions, canon connotes Christianity. But the more ancient story of its Latin and Greek roots are anything but. Most etymologists agree that the Latin canna and Greek kanna sprouted up on Semitic shores. As the Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology explains it, canon ultimately grew out of the Babylonian-Assyrian qanū, “reed.” This, in turn, is from the Sumerian – yes, Sumerian – gin, likewise meaning “reed.” Cognates include the Hebrew qāneh and the Arabic qanāh. 

As Catholics observe Mother Teresa’s new place in the canon of saints, her canonization adds to the long life of a very well-traveled metaphor indeed.

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Apostolic what?: It should be Greek to you

At least from what I’ve seen, most news outlets are referring to it as a “document.” Urging priests to show more compassion towards gay, divorced, and unmarried Catholics, Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia, or “The Joy of Love,” is technically called a “post-synodal apostolic exhortation,” a name almost as long as its 250-plus pages.

A post-synodal apostolic exhortation is a strong advisement (“exhortation”) issued by the pope (“apostolic”) after bishops have gathered to discuss a particular theme (“post-synodal”), here, the contemporary family in the Catholic church. Such a pronouncement does not officially change Church doctrine.

Is that Greek to you? Well, the actual words are, mostly.


Exhortation, or “admonishment” or “incitement,”  ultimately derives from the Latin exhortāri, which joins ex-, here an intensive prefix meaning “thoroughly,” and hortāri, “to encourage.”

The Oxford English Dictionary first cites exhortation in 1382 in Wycliffe’s Bible, which may suggest the word has long carried a religious weight. The verb form is documented about a century later, though a French variant, enhort, is recorded in Wycliffe’s Bible.

Hortatory, if you want some encouragement in your vocabulary, is a fancy way to describe something that provides exhortation.


Apostolic is an adjective form of “apostle.” The word has long been associated as one of the Four Marks of the Church, first issued in 381 in the Nicene Creed: “We believe in one, holy, catholic, apostolic church.”

In the creed, apostolic essentially means that the church continues on from the Twelve Apostles. Pope Francis is the Bishop of Rome, who, as Catholics believe, ultimately succeeds St. Peter, the first pope and representative of Jesus Christ on earth.

So, St. Peter was an apostle but also the first pope, hence apostolic also refers to “the successor of St. Peter,” or “papal.” The OED indeed first cites this meaning of apostolic in a 1477 published by Caxton, who first brought the printing press to England.

The earliest form of apostle is actually apostol, found as early as the 900s in reference to the Twelve Apostles. We owe the modern form, apostle, to a subsequent French borrowing in Middle English.

Apostle is a Greek word: ἀπόστολος (apostolos) was a “messenger,” “ambassador,” or “envoy,” literally “one sent forth.” According to Christian tradition, Christ “sent forth” his apostles to preach his gospel. At  root is ἀποστέλλειν (apostellein), “to send away.” Apostellein sends a versatile prefix, apo- (“away”) off with stellein,  another a versatile word, meaning “to send.”

An epistle, or “letter,” is similarly formed in the Greek, but features instead epi -, a prefix here meaning “at.”


Synod is also a religious word from Greek. Since the late 14th century, a synod has been referring to various “assemblies” of clergy, as σύνοδος (synodos) so meant in Greek.

Let’s break apart this “meeting”: synodos brings together syn- (“together”) and hodos (a “way”). The latter is also featured in period, which I discussed in an older post on punctuation.

Latin borrowed the term from Greek, English from the Latin. Some 17th-century scientists applied synod to astronomical conjunctions.

In the Catholic Church, a synod usually refers to the Synod of Bishops, who assemble regularly, though sometimes urgently, from all over the world to advise the pope on important church matters. Synods in 2014 and 2015 were called to address the family, eventually yielding Francis’ Amoris Laetitia.

Universal (and European) language

Thanks in part to important translations of the Bible from Hebrew into Greek and to the development of the early spread of the Church in Greece, Catholic terminology brims with Greek terms. And, of course, many more Latin ones, too.

But, as far as his post-synodal apostolic exhortation is concerned, this pontiff is aiming for the more universal language of love – as well as in French, German, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, and Spanish, if we look to the other translations of Amoris Laetitia thus far released.

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Tales from the “crypt”

Apple’s encryption has been at the center of a heated debate over privacy and security these past weeks. A federal judge ordered the company to unlock the iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters last December to aid the FBI’s investigation, but they have not complied: Apple maintains that such decryption would compromise the data of millions of its users. As the fight continues, we’ll see whether Apple will crack – or keep its code. In the meantime, let’s crack the etymological of code of the word at the center of this debate: crypt.


A 17th-century Italian grotesque ornament drawing. Image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art from the Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1934.


Telecommunications has been using encrypt since the 1950s, with encryption appearing shortly thereafter. Decrypt has been in use earlier, however; the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites it in the 1930s to refer more generally to the solution of a cryptogram, “something written in code.” Decrypt’s specifically technological sense followed encrypt.

The OED indicates encrypt and decrypt – these verbs for the conversion of data in and out of codes – were formed after cryptogram, which is dated to the early 1800s. Cryptogram is itself formed after cryptography, a word evidenced all the way back in the 1640s in a reference to Cryptomenytices et Cryptographiae Libri IX. This 1624 text on the art of ciphers (steganography) was written by Gustavus Selenus, a pseudonym, appropriately enough, for Duke August II of Brunswick. Shakespeare’s First Folio was published a year before and, as some will have it, “truthers” claim Selenus’ work reveals Francis Bacon as the true author of the plays.

As we see in cryptogram and cryptography, crypto- has been a not-so-secret word-forming prefix in the English language. The earliest record of the prefix comes in the late 16th century form of cryptoporticus, a reference to the Latin architectural term for a covered, semi-subterranean passageway, usually with windows looking up aboveground.

Nineteenth-century scientists were fond of it: they coined the likes of cryptocephalous and cryptozygous. Cryptozoology joins the “secret” club in the 1960s, though.

Nineteenth-century political and religious leaders liked crypto-, too. We see crypto-Catholic (a secret Catholic) and a whole host of similar conspiratorial coinages: crypto-Christian, crypto-Jesuit, crypto-Jew, crypto-deist, crypto-heretic, even crypto-Fenian, among others. From what I can tell, these formations are indebted to crypto-Calvinism, a 16th German concern about Calvinists acting as Lutherans, the OED tells me. These formations also anticipate the crypto-fascist and crypto-communist (later, just crypto) of the 1920s and 1930s.

Today, I imagine closet has largely outed crypto- in its “secret” appellations, but I could see some currency for crypto-liberal, crypto-conservative, or even crypto-establishment in today’s political climate.

Cryptic crosswords 

Now, crypto- ultimately derives from Greek. Etymologists cite two forms: the Hellenistic Greek κρυπτο- (krypto-), directly responsible for the English prefix, and the more common ancient Greek κρυψι- (krupsi-). Both conceal κρυπτός (kryptos), “hidden,” from a verb, κρύπτειν (kryptein), “to hide.” Indo-European scholars dig yet deeper, reconstructing *krau-, a verb of a similar action.

For the first prefix, krypto, the OED mentions a one-off Greek κρύπτορχος (kryptorkhos), “with undescended testicles”; this –ορχος is related to orchid, the beautiful flowers whose roots suggested testicles to its namers.

Latin fashioned Greek’s kryptos into crypta, an “underground passage” or “covered galley,” possibly even a “vault” or “crypt” in the modern sense. English’s first crypt, which the OED dates at least to 1475, was a “cave” or “cavern,” its meaning of “underground burial place” coming a century or so after. Cryptic begins naming the mysterious in the late 1600s, the crossword puzzle in the late 1900s.

With Morris Travers, chemist William Ramsay fashioned the element krypton in 1898 after the Greek, apparently because this noble gas  was “hidden” in a liquid he was studying. A friend of Ramsay suggested the name Eosium, for the Greek for “dawn” due to the brilliant spectral lines the element emits. The radioactive kryptonite, mined from planet Krypton, may have been so inspired by the element name when it first threatened Superman in the 1940s.

“Hidden” in plain sight

There are yet other cognates of crypt I was very surprised to find hiding in the word: grotto, a “small, pleasant cave” or cave-like place, and undercroft, a “vaulted chamber,” usually under a church. Grotto, via Italian, and undercroft, via Germanic languages, both go back to the Latin crypta.

Grotto and undercroft still evoke for me special places in my Catholic school days. My grade school, St. Mary’s, housed a shrine to its patron saint in a cool, shady cove between school buildings we called the grotto. From what I gather, shrines to Mary were erected by worshippers in grotto-like places, especially along pilgrimage roots. Underneath the church was the undercroft. My school deemed this crypt-like place a great place to house the kindergarten classrooms. These words are charged with powerful memories, peculiar and distinct places they are, with peculiar and distinct names.

Grotto, as indicated, comes from the Italian grotta, which derives grottesca, a kind of “cave painting,” or pittura grottesca. Some speculate these were murals found on the walls in the chambers of Roman buildings, which became known as grotte during their excavation. Grottesca yielded the French crotesque and, ultimately, the English grotesque. At first, a grotesque was a sort of fantastical and pastoral painting of human-animal forms, whose fanciful distortions propelled to the word’s later evolution to “bizarre,” “absurd,” “disturbing” – a term, to bring it full circle, some may use to describe Apple’s refusal to decrypt, others the FBI’s insistence on a backdoor.

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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.


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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estivate + edify

Fast Mash

  • Proto-Indo-European root *aidh– (burn) gave Latin aestus (heat) and aestās (summer)
  • From aestās English forms estival (of summer) and estivate (to spend the summer)
  • *Aidh– also gave Latin aedes (building, shrine, hearth), basis of English’s edify (originally, to build up the church or soul in holiness) and edifice

Estivate and edify aren’t exactly everyday words, but, boy, do their roots show some curious connections.

While writing my last post on summer, I was struck by the absence of any Romance cognates of the season’s origin.  (Two words are cognates, it is worth repeating, when they derive from the same source.  Consider the English father and Spanish padre.)

Given that summer‘s sound and sense have changed so little over the past centuries, I expected—OK, I hoped—the root would prove more pervasive. Haven’t we’ve seen the etymological cousins of words like stream simply proliferate in Proto-Indo-European lineages? So, why not for summer? I’d think it be like linguistic chicken stock.

I know, I know. Linguists—and sensible professionals of all stripes—please roll your eyes at my pursuit of etymological holy grails. I promise to spend some more time with Saussure—or, hell, Lewis Carroll for that matter. Languages are structured, systematic, and situated. Static and stable they are not. But let an armchair etymologist dream!

But speaking of Lewis Carroll, summer may have delivered me down no rabbit holes, but its Latin equivalent, aestās, most certainly did.


Ancient Romans referred to summer as aestās. This noun gave Latin its related adjective, aestīvus, as well as the verb aestīvāre, which means to spend the summer (somewhere or doing something).

Both forms have made their way into English words. From the former English gets estival (or aestival in the UK, often with a long i and stress on the second syllable). It means pertaining to the summer. The latter kept its meaning in the sadly-less-than-useful estivate (or aestivate). In fairness to biologists, the verb it does take on more technical and practical meanings for zoological purposes. Estivation: No, not the process of transforming into Emilio Estevez, but like hibernation in hot, dry seasons.

By the way, neither word will impress your high school English teacher. Especially not when used in casual conversation in the hallway at the end of the school year. And in the same sentence.

Admired Teacher (AT): “Mr. Kelly, what are your plans for the summer?” (Teachers at all-male Jesuit high schools seem to love formal address. Or the potential for mockery therein.)

Fawning Pupil (FP): “Well, I, uh, plan to estivate by playing music, reading, working. You know, the usual estival fare.”

AT: “Oh, you’re going to music festivals? And isn’t estivating sharing a little too much?”

FP:  “No, um, estival, like summer—”

AT: “—Estival. Like summer. Mr. Kelly, I know what it means, but…”

And so I learned what fifty-cent word means, how one’s love of Latin has some very practical limits, and, most important, how to distinguish perplexity and vexation in human body language.

Real quick, though. The adverb aestīvē means scantilyas in “scantily clad.” Fantastic, right?

OK. Now, here’s where it starts to pick up heat. Aestās is related to aestus, whose meanings include agitation, heat, glowsultriness, and tide, and could also refer to billowy, boiling seas. This word, in turn, is rooted in the Proto-Indo-European *aidh-, or to burn. Its Greek iteration ultimately gave English ether. It is also responsible for estuary (via Latin). And, new to me, oast, an obscure word once generally referring to kilns in Old English (āst) but now more narrowly signifying just those used for drying hops.

Oh, and there’s another word *aidh- is eventually responsible for: edify. Yep, edify.


Out of this root *aidh- Latin built aedes,  a noun that could mean apartmentbuilding, temple, shrine, and rooms (of a house). The Oxford Dictionary of Etymology, the Online Etymological Dictionary, and Shipley add hearth. Interestingly, I did not find hearth in my Latin sources, though cells (of a beehive), tomb, and rent-free home were glossed. (And if you were wondering, focus is the principal word for hearth in Latin, as well as a word for home and family. Now there’s a good rabbit hole.)  

From my cross-referencing, it seems that earliest meaning of aedes might have been hearth. Later, the sense of shrine and sanctuary came to dominate. And eventually the sense of building became common alongside its religious usage.

So, what’s the connection between burning and buildings? Did aedes come about because the use of fire for building materials? The ancient Romans did build an empire out of fired clay brick. Or simply because it named the floor or area around a fireplace? Or perhaps because of burning offerings to gods in their shrines? Indeed, for ancient Romans, an aedes housed the image of a god, and thus was considered a sanctuary or dwelling place of the god. Could the prominent Vesta, household deity and goddess of hearth and home, have had any compounding influence?

Whatever the case, aedes joined with facere (to do, make, an immensely productive root in English) to form aedifcāre (to erect a building). This generated aedificium (building, in the general sense).

And from these, via the French, English gets edify and edification. The OED dates both back to 1340, although edify technically appeared earlier (posthumous publication). Edifice comes in the 1380s.

Around 1340, edify first meant build or construct, but even then it also had a religious usage. From the OED:

To build up (the church, the soul) in faith and holiness; to benefit spiritually, to strengthen, support.

And around 1382 entered edification, which the OED notes was modeled after the Greek oikodome (οἰκοδομή), which appeared in 1 Corinthians 14. As the New International Version has it (pay attention to verses 3-5; the glosses are mine):

Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy. 2 For anyone who speaks in a tongue [another language] does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit. 3 But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening [edifying], encouraging and comfort. 4 Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves, but the one who prophesies edifies the church. 5 I would like every one of you to speak in tongues [other languages], but I would rather have you prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be edified.

What’s the benefit (edification) when people can’t understand what your saying? What’s the point of saying estivate when you can say spend the summer— and actually be understood. I’m talking to you, John.

The OED’s definitions of edification adds that such spiritual strength and stability came about through “suitable instruction and exhortation.” It’s interesting to note here the connection between early education and religion. And so through metaphorical extension, edify came to figure a moral or intellectual buildup. Today, I think we see the word most as a present participle, edifying.

Burning and heat, hearth and home, sanctuary and shrine, the church and the soul, morals and the mind. All that from the Latin word for summer. Edifying, eh?

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