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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candy

Today, millions of be-ghouled kids across North America will be facing the disappointment of “fun size” candy as they trick-or-treat for Halloween. While “fun size” may sour any ghost or goblin, candy makes for a quite the sweet and surprising etymology.

"Candy." Doodle & secret message by @andrescalo.
“Candy.” Doodle & secret message by @andrescalo.

Candy

Following in the tradition of the Romance languages, the earliest appearance of candy is in sugar-candy in 1390. From the French (sucre candi) and, previously, Latin (saccharum candi), we can unwrap the Arabic qand, “the crystallized juice of the sugar-cane” (Oxford English Dictionary [OED]). Passing through to Arabic from Persian, the word is connected to the Sanskrit khanda (“piece,” as in “piece of candy”), from the verb khand “to break.” (I think of small chunks of brittle as a visual reference, for whatever it’s worth.) The Online Etymology Dictionary proposes a Tamil root for “to harden.” Tamil, you may recall in my second post on “citrus,” is a Dravidian language, found in southern India and Sri Lanka.

Now that’s quite the Halloween haul.

Both sugar and cane also go back to the cradle of civilization, if you will, teaching us how ancient the “sweet-tooth” really is, to riff on Jordan Shipley’s commentary on these words. With both passing into English via the sturdy stock of French, Latin, and Greek, the former we can trace back to the Arabic sukkar (“sugar”), which has been connected to a Sanskrit word for “grit,” as in “ground-up,” like, well, grains of sugar. The historical phonology of sugar is quite ghoulish, however.

The latter, cane, is via a Semitic root, qanah, “reed,” which itself some link to the Sumerian gin, meaning the same. This root may also be part of the origin of caramel, along with the Indo-European root for “honey.” Canyoncanalcanister, cannon, and canon all, to various degrees, may be related to cane.

I know this holiday isn’t even over, but  I have to put out one yuletide decoration briefly: A candy cane may evoke Christmas, which, culturally speaking, is about as Christian and Western as it gets, but etymologically, we can see that candy cane comes from a whole different world. Now that’s quite the treat, isn’t?

Speaking of Arabic, ghoul is another Halloween-y word that ultimately haunts the Arabic-speaking world. First appearing in English in a 1786 translation of a French-language Gothic novel called Vathek, the word goes back to the Arabic ghul, referring to an “evil spirit” believed in Muslim countries to “rob graves and prey on corpses” (OED). The word is further rooted in a verb meaning “to seize.”

Seize away, ghoul, as long as you don’t steal my candy.

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