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?

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“Reed.” Image by Viktors Kozers, courtesy of freeimages.com.

Canonize

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

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

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

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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Rosary

Rowan County clerk Kim Davis has again grabbed headlines. As we learned after his historic visit to the United States, the Pontiff privately met with her and gave her two rosaries. Their sub rosa meeting raised many questions, including one for me: Why do we call it a rosary?

"Roses" Ball point pen on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.
“Roses.” Ball point pen on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.

Rosary

When Catholics pray the rosary, they recite a structured series of prayers contemplating important events – or “mysteries” – in the life of Jesus and his mother, Mary. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) attests this usage in 1531, though Catholic tradition originates the practice in a vision of Mary by Saint Dominic in 1214.

For most, rosary probably evokes its particular prayer beads. These help devotees keep count of the prayer sequence, thereby freeing their minds to meditate on those mysteries. The OED attests this transferred rosary by 1548.

An earlier citation of rosary provides important clues to the development of the word. The OED cites rosarie as early as 1387: a “coin made in imitation of the silver penny of Edward I (1272-1307) by European mints.” On one side of this counterfeit currency was a bust wearing a chaplet or garland, often made of flowers – especially roses. (Another counterfeit penny circulated in Ireland at this time was called a mitre, named for its imprint of this episcopal headgear.) 

Prayer “garden”

Rosary derives from the Latin rosārium. In Classical Latin, the word names a “rose garden,” with its root, rosa, meaning “rose.” In Medieval Latin, rosārium also named a “garland” as well as a “series of prayers” or the very “string of beads” we associate the word with today. A kind of garland wreathing the head, a chaplet also refers to a particular section of the rosary along with other devotional prayers aided by beads.  

So, why roses? Well, the OED records rosary used as a title for a “book of devotion,” especially including rosary prayers, in 1525. Medieval scholars note some important metaphors for art in the Middle Ages and antiquity. Writing, for instance, was likened to ploughing a field. Collecting poems or prayers, furthermore, was like cultivating a garden or arranging a bouquet. We see this in the etymology of the word anthology, which literally means “a gathering of flowers” in ancient Greek. Latin rendered this as a florilegium, meaning the same. So, a rosary is like a “garden” of prayers, as the Online Etymology Dictionary sums it up.

Of course, symbolic associations of roses in Catholicism certainly add strength to the connection between roses and Mary, prayers to whom constitute 53 of a rosary’s beads. Philologist Eric Partridge notes that Medieval Latin used rosārium for a “rose garland for crowning the Virgin.” The resemblance between a garland and a rosary – a string of beads does look like a string of flowers – may further strengthen the connection.

Today, many of us might have a different sort of rose in mind: Roseburg, home to a community college that was visited with a horrific mass shooting yesterday. This may leave many praying their rosaries, but we’re going to need a lot more than prayers to do anything about gun violence.

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On popes, baseball, & engines

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.

Mitre_Felt Tip and Sharpie on Paper_doodle
“Mitre.” Felt tip and Sharpie on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.

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.

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Pontiff

Pope Francis is visiting the US this week. His stances on climate change, homosexuality, divorce, and capitalism, among other issues, have been inspiring Catholics and non-Catholics alike. We might say he’s building bridges, a fitting description for a pontiff.

Like a bridge over troubled etymology?
Like a bridge over troubled etymology? “Bridge.” Ink on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.

Pontiff

Pontiff crosses into English from the French pontif in the late 1500s. The word originally named a “bishop” or any “high priest” but eventually settled on one in particular: the bishop of Rome, or the Pope. French fashioned pontif from Latin’s pontifex, a title which is certainly not ancient history. You can find the Pope on Twitter. He’s @pontifex; at @pontifex_lnhe even tweets in Latin.

Pontifex connects two Latin words: pons, “bridge,” and –fex, a “maker,” from the verb facere. Pontifices were powerful priests in Ancient Rome who helped administer religious law, with the pontifex maximus heading their council, or collegium. Over time, emperors, including Julius Caesar, came to function as the pontifex maximus. Early Roman Catholic bishops borrowed the title in the 4th century, with the bishop of bishops, the Pope, eventually donning the supreme title along with his mitre.

Why bridge building? Ernest Weekley comments that “bridge-building has always been regarded as a pious work of divine inspiration.” Indeed, the Tiber-spanning Pons Sublicius, the oldest known bridge in the city,  was sacred. In his History of Rome, Theodor Mommsen observes that the pontifices:

Derived their name from their function, as sacred as it was politically important, of conducting the building and demolition of the bridge over the Tiber. They were the Roman engineers, who understood the mysteries of measures and numbers

Eric Partridge adds that ancient Rome was known as the “city of bridges.” Metaphorically, the name works, with priests “bridging” gods and men, which the Online Etymology Dictionary points out, but this may be due to folk etymology, as we’ll see.

Pons also had an earlier meaning in Latin: a “path,” “road,” “way,” or “passage.” Ernest Klein  comments that the original meaning of pontifex was “waymaker” or “pathfinder.” Is this “way” also figurative? Well, Walter Skeat remarks that the early pontifex was “one who leads to the temple” or “leads the way in a procession. Jordan Shipley adds clergy in the Middle Ages helped pilgrims find the roads – and some argue oversaw their very construction – to sacred shrines. All roads lead to Rome, after all.

The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots grounds pons in the Proto-Indo-European *pent-, “to tread” or “go,” source of English’s path and find and even Russian’s sputnik.

Catholics may deem the Pope infallible, but none of these etymologies are. Pontifex, the “bridge builder,” may be the construction of folk etymology, which changes a word based on mistaken beliefs about its nature. Etymologists, including Weekley, suggest Oscan and Umbrian roots (puntis) meaning “propitiary offering.” Shipley connects this to the Greek pompe (πομπή), a “religious procession,” from a verb meaning “to send.” He goes on to say pontifex was originally pompifex. So, perhaps the more unfamiliar puntis or pompe was altered to resemble pontifex in sound and sense.

This Greek pompe produced the pomp in pomp and circumstance as well as pompous, which may characterize someone who is pontificating. This term began as “to perform the functions of a pontiff,” evolving to its current sense via the dogmatic decrees associated with powerful pontiffs. But for this pontifex, as we are seeing, pomp and pontification don’t build bridges. They burn them.

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