The older I get, the more I realize how much I don’t know – and will never know. Despite having the goal to read at least one book per week, I’m having a hard time doing it. To add to the misery, it doesn’t a degree in mathematics to realize that even if I could read 52 books per year, assuming I get the opportunity to live until I’m 100, I can only expect to read just over 2000 books before I’m dead. And that’s the best case scenario! If I only manage 26 per year and live until I’m 90, that drops to 800.

Math aside, the challenge then becomes working out which books to choose, given that not only do thousands of new ones appear every year but that there are also many more that have been published since the invention of the printing press.

All of this is pretty much just a preamble to explaining why it is that I’ve reached the age of 57 and only now found the time to read Apollodorus’s The Library, which I’ve decided I should have done 40 years ago! Sure, it’s not as racy as Ovid’s Metamorphoses and it’s a denser read than Homer’s Odyssey, but it’s packed with gods, mythology, and more characters than Game of Thrones. The copy I bought is from the Loeb Classical Library and not only has the original Greek paired with the English translation on every two pages but it includes fascinating commentaries by the translator, the brilliant anthropologist and scholar  J.G. Frazer [1]. Although it’s often promoted, or perceived, as a text for academics and students, quite frankly it’s the sort of book anyone can read and find lots of interesting and entertaining snippets of knowledge.



Not surprisingly, considering how educated and erudite Frazer was, now and again I have to pause my reading to head for the dictionary. More specifically, I use the Oxford Dictionaries Quick Search app [2] on my Moto X phone because it’s quick, convenient, and accurate. And my latest new word was supposititious.

At first, I thought it was a misprint for superstitious but when I re-read the sentence it clearly was supposed to mean something else. And it did! The word is used in the story of Oedipus, who was the son of King Laius and Jocasta. Laius had been warned by an oracle not to have a son because he would grow up to kill his father and sleep with his mother. Tragically, one night he got roaring drunk and had sex with Jocasta, which resulted in Oedipus. So Laius had his new-born taken out into the mountains and left to die. Fortunately for Oedipus [3], he was found by a cowherd of King Polybus and taken to him and his wife, Periboea. They brought him up as their son, not revealing that he was a foundling. However, there were rumors…

When the boy grew up and excelled his fellows in strength, they spitefully twitted him with being supposititious. (Apollodorus, p.345).

The first meaning of the word as defined by the OED is as follows:

Put by devious means in the place of another; fraudulently substituted for the genuine thing or person. Hence: falsely claimed or purporting to be something, not genuine, spurious, counterfeit, false.

The colleagues of Oedipus were correct. He was indeed claiming to be the son of Polybus and Periboea but was not. In fairness, he wasn’t actually deceiving people because he wasn’t aware of his real parents, and his adoptive ones kept it a secret. In fact, it was precisely because they kept mum that Oedipus eventually killed his dad and shagged his mum! Because Periboea wouldn’t say anything about his past, he went to the oracle at Delphi who told him not to go back to his home because he would murder his father and sleep with his mother. He naturally assumed this meant Polybus and Periboea, so he left and ended up at his real birthplace where the prophecy played out.

oedipus and sphinx

Oedipus Meets the Sphinx

Supposititious makes its first appearance in 1600 and is from the Latin suppositīcius, which means “to put in place of another,” “to substitute” or simply “pretended.” The supposit– element is the past participle form of the verb supponere, which means variously “to place under or beneath, to append, subjoin, to put in the place of another, substitute, to introduce fraudulently.” Breaking it down even further, the sup– is a phonetic variation [4] of the prefix sub– that means “under” or “at the bottom of,” and the ponere means “to put, to place” – literally “to put under.”

By 1620 the meaning of supposititious had been extended to include “pretended or imagined to exist; feigned, fictitious; fabulous; fancied, imaginary” in general, and five years later the meaning included the notion of the substitution of children:

Of a child, esp. one set up to displace a real heir or successor, or the birth of such a child. Also in extended sense: illegitimate.

This is the sense of the word that Frazer.

By the middle of the 17th century, supposititious was also being used as a general adjective for anything that was hypothetical, supposed, or subject to conjecture. In fact, it’s still used in the sense today – if infrequently.

It may have struck some readers that there’s another similar-sounding word that comes to mind when you see supposititioussuppository. The similarity is not accidental. A  suppository is defined as:

A medicinal preparation, typically in the form of a small, solid cone or cylinder of a base material that becomes soft or liquid at body temperature, administered by insertion into the rectum, vagina, or urethra (or, esp. in early use, any body orifice other than the mouth).

It comes from the Latin suppositorium  meaning “a medical plug,” which in turn can be traced back to verb supponere and the sense of “something going under.”

The word suppository was also used as an adjective meaning “supposed or hypothetical” from the mid-1600s through to the beginning of the 20th century, but its current use is almost exclusively as the noun referring to drugs administered anally.

Bottoms up!

[1] James George Frazer was born on 1st January 1854 in Glasgow, Scotland, and died on 7th May, 1941 aged 87. My guess is that he was quite capable of reading 52 books a year. And on top of that, he wrote the influential The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, the 3rd edition of which runs to 12 volumes released between 1906 and 1915. Alas I’ve only ever managed to read the single-volume abridged version and it’s likely the encyclopedic set will never even make it onto my book shelves. Who has time to read all this good stuff?

[2] Whenever someone asks me “which dictionary should I use?” I’m now comfortable with an “It depends” response. Dictionaries are like physical tools in that you use different ones for different jobs. If your toolbox only had a hammer in it, you’d be restricted in the number of jobs you could do. It’s the same with dictionaries. I use the Oxford Dictionaries app on my smart phone when I am reading a physical book because I can have instant access to a word I don’t know literally within arm’s reach. But for some serious investigation of a word (or words) there are still times I need to pile up volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary on a table top and flick through pages of paper. Oh, and I use the online Urban Dictionary for researching slang words – but that’s a different post!

[3] Some people claim that “the name makes the man” but in the case of Oedipus it’s an example of where “the man makes the name.” When Laius first had his son exposed and left to die, he stabbed him in the ankles, presumably to speed up the process. The Greek Οἰδίπους means “swollen foot” and is a blend of οἰδεῖν meaning “to swell” and πούς meaning “foot.” The Greek πούς is gave way to the Latin ped and both are found at the root of many words used in English that related to feet, walking, and movement.

[4] When a prefix gets attached to the front of a word, the actual sound of it can changed based on the sound at the beginning of the word to which it is being attached. The final sound of the prefix “assimilates” with the initial sound of the word being prefixed so as to make the word easier to say. In the case of sub-, the final sound is the /b/ whereas the initial sound of ponere is a /p/. The difference between these two sound is that the former is voiced, which means the vocal cords vibrate a little, and the latter is voiceless, where the cords don’t get involved. If  you try to say a word where you switch from /b/ to /p/ quickly, it’s hard! But what happens is that the /b/ at the end of sub shifts to become voiceless like the /p/ at the beginning of ponere, and you get supponere not subponere (or subbornere). This is Nature’s way of making speech easier. That’s also way when you hear someone say the word subpoena it is typically pronounced as “su-PEE-nuh” without any /b/ sound. Check it out next time you watch a crime drama on TV!

Sigmund FreudToday, May 5, 2016, is the 160th anniversary of the birth of Sigmund Freud. Coming immediately one day after Cinco de Mayo, I’m guessing most folks will be too partied out to go out on the town tonight to drink beer, smoke cigars, snort cocaine, and eat mushrooms. My own raucous celebrations are likely to include take-out food and a Brandy Alexander followed by watching Psycho and wondering if the movie would have turned out differently if only Norman Bates had had an analyst.The it’ll be off to bed, to sleep, perchance to dream.

Freud spent an awful lot of his life talking about dreams. In fact, it took him five years to write his seminal work The Interpretation of Dreams, starting in 1895 and seeing the published book in 1900. Here is expounds at length on how dreams are “the Royal Road to the Unconscious” where our deepest, darkest desires roil around like serpents in a pit. In a reference to Virgil’s Aeneid, Freud opened the book with the following quotation:

Flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo

Or for those of us who speak little or no Latin, “If I cannot bend the Higher Powers, I will move the Infernal regions.” And in the spirit of accuracy, “Acheronta movebo” is more literally translated as “I will move the Acheron,” which in Greek mythology is one of the rivers of the Underworld and Land of the Dead – the river of Woe [1].

A later reworking of Virgil’s phrase is found in Milton’s Paradise Lost, where the fallen angel Lucifer says,

Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven

If you’ve read Paradise Lost, you’ll know that when Lucifer says this, he’s feeling pretty miserable because he’s been tossed out of Heaven and a little antsy towards God. A more modern interpretation of Lucifer’s angst can be seen in the 1966 movie Bedazzled starring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, where Cook – as God – sits atop a post box while Moore – as Lucifer – walks round and around the box worshiping God until Moore says, “Here, I’m getting a bit bored with this. Can’t we change places?”

“That’s exactly how I felt,” says Cook. “I only wanted to be like him and have a few angels adoring me. He didn’t see it like that. Pride, he called it. The sin of pride. Flew into a monumental rage, chucked me out of heaven, gave me this miserable job. Just because I wanted to be loved!”


But before Lucifer became identified in Christian mythology as a fallen angel, the word was used to refer to the morning star, or the planet Venus as it rises in the sky at dawn. The Latin lūcifer is an adjective meaning “light-bringing” and by extension was used as the name for the morning star.

The first part of the word, lūc(i),- comes from lux meaning “light,” and the second part, -fer, is a suffix with the sense of carrying or bearing, as in transfer or crucifer. It comes from the verb ferre meaning “to bear or carry.” The lux element is also the source for the word lucid, meaning “clear” or “easy to understand, and for the common word light as in “bright” or “shining.”

We can stroll a little further back to the Greek word for the morning star or Venus, which is Phosphorus (ϕωσϕόρος ). This itself is a shortening of the phrase ϕωσϕόρος ἀστήρ, which means “bright star,” where phosphorus is an adjective, not a proper noun. The Greek phos (ϕῶς) means “light” and the suffix foros (ϕόρος ) means “to carry” or “to bear” – like the Latin -fer suffix just mentioned. The verb form of “to bear” was actually the Greek pherien (ϕέρειν) and this looks and sounds very similar to the Latin ferre.

When translators came to handle the word Phosphorus, they knew that is had the sense of “bearer of light” and so the Greek phos became the Latin lux and the Greek foros changed to Latin fer – hence Lucifer.

From all this, it should be apparent that the old myth that the word luck comes from Lucifer is wrong. Very wrong. Apart from the three letters L-U-C there’s no link between them. Luck is of Germanic stock with cognates such as Middle Dutch luc, Middle Low German lücke, Old Icelandic lukka, lykka, and Old Danish lukkæ. The ultimate Germanic base form is unknown but it’s certainly not from the same line as Lucifer.

[1] The five rivers of the Underworld are Acheron, Cocytus, Lethe, Phlegethon, and Styx. The first is the river of Woe, the second the river of Lamentation, the third the river of Forgetfulness, the fourth the river of Fire, and the Styx is the river of Dead Progressive Rock Bands.

budget /ˈbʌdʒɪt/

Most of us spend a fair amount of our lives trying to make money so that we can do the things we want to do. The juggling of income and expenditure is typically referred to as a budget. The concept behind working to a budget is stunningly simple and was expressed very well by the Mr. Micawber, a character for the Charles Dickens’ novel, David Copperfield, where he says;

Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds nought and six, result misery.

Economists and politicians will spend lots of time trying to make this sound complicated – especially since the former want you to pay them for their services and the latter want you to vote them into power. But so long as what you spend is less than what you earn, you’re good to go. Sure you can borrow money, which feels like extra income, but of course, it isn’t income because you have to pay it back.



So when governments make budgets, all they are doing is telling us all how they intend to use taxes (government income) to keep the country running (government expenditure). In the US, when the opposition parties can’t agree on budgets, it can lead to a shutdown – as happened on 1st October, 2013. And if a government overspends its budget, then they run the risk of losing the next election.

The word budget wasn’t originally anything to do with balancing income and expenditure and it made its way into English via the French bougette, which in turn was a diminutive of the word bouge – a leather bag. It’s transfer to the meaning we all use today came from British parliamentary procedure back in the early 18th century when the Chancellor of the Exchequer would submit a financial plan for the next few years to the members of the House of Commons. He would carry his notes in a small leather bag, the budget, and then “open the budget” to read his statement. In 1771, Horace Walpole wrote in his Memories of George II that;

The time was now come for opening the budget, when it was incumbent on him to state the finances, debts, and calls of Government.

Going back in time a little further, we find that the word budget also referred generally to the contents of a purse or bag. So in 1597, Thomas Morley wrote in his A plaine and easie introduction to practicall musicke that, “You shall have the hardest in all my budget.” And seeing as how a bundle of papers could easily be carried inside a purse, the word became used to refer to newspaper print for periodicals such as The Pall Mall Budget or the Young Folk’s Weekly Budget. This is similar to how we use words such as gazette, record, or chronicle in the names of other newspapers.

The Old French bouge (or sometimes boulge, buche, or buge) can be traced back to the Latin bulga, a leather bag – or even the womb! Note that in Old Irish we also find the words bolg and bolc being used to refer to a leather sack or bag. The word bulge for a protuberance or lump comes from the same root.

Its move to taking on verb characteristics was first noted at the beginning of the 17th century. In the sense of “to draw up or create a budget,” John Taylor wrote in Works (1618) that, “We eate a substantiall dinner, & like miserable Guests we did budget vp the reuersions.” By the 19th century, it was happily being used in the same verb sense as it is today.

It’s also worth noting that up until the late 19th century, the phrase “open one’s budget” was used to mean “speak one’s mind.” In Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey (1847) she wrote;

There’s Matilda..and I must go and open my budget to her.

Related to this sadly obsolete phrase was its similarly defunct counterpart, mumbudget, which means “to keep silent.” Here the addition of mum (to stay silent) creates an opposite of the word budget. It’s a great word and worthy of resurrection!

scholium /’skəʊlɪəm/

As I’ve mentioned many posts ago, one of my favorite ways to waste time is to do crosswords. Earlier this week, a clue from The Daily Telegraph Big Book of Cryptic Crosswords 16 was as follows:

                           Much oil’s used – explanatory note required (8)

It’s a pretty standard cryptic clue with the word “used” suggesting the answer is an anagram of “much oil’s” – and the fact that it’s an 8-letter word is another giveaway. So, the answer is an anagram of “much oil’s” and it’s “an explanatory note.” Now, given that some of the letters were already in place as “S_H_L_U_” my best guess was scholium – but this was a new word to me so although it fit, I couldn’t be happy until I found out what it meant.

Picture of crossword puzzle

Crossword: Creative Commons license, Mark Sunter

The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as:

An explanatory note or comment; spec. an ancient exegetical note or comment upon a passage in a Greek or Latin author.

The first cited example is from a 1535 tract by George Joye entitled An apology made to satisfy, if it may be, W. TIndale, where we find “And when I shulde make scholias, notis, and gloses in the margent as himself and his master doith.” In Medieval Latin, a singular note would be a scholium and more than one would be scholia, so it looks like Joye was an early adopter of using the “s” plural for Latin words – a step toward modern English.

Scholium can be traced further back to the Greek scholion (σχόλιον ) that comes from the word scholi (σχολή ) meaning “school.” If we take a look at Liddell and Scott’s classic A Greek-English Lexicon,[1] we find it defined as an “interpretation,” “comment,” or “short note.” Interestingly, another meaning mentioned is as “a tedious speech or lecture” – something I’m sure Classics students have been able to leverage with their teachers for many years.

The word also has a more restricted usage in the field of mathematics to refer to a note added by the actual author to illustrate or further develop a specific point. This meaning pops up in 1704 but hardly becomes a frequently used word.

And speaking of frequency, the Corpus of Contemporary American English shows a measly seven examples from its 450 million word sample, and of those, four refer to something called The Scholium Project, a wine-making project that began in 1999, and the other three were comments on an essay by Isaac Newton, his General Scholium, which became an appendix to his Principia or Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. The plural scholia fairs no better with only five examples, all from fiction books.

You might expect that such an academic word would be more likely to be found in the British National Corpus, created in the home of crusty Classicists, Oxbridge dons, and Civil Service mandarins schooled in Greek and Latin. Alas, out of 100 million words, scholium only manages one example and scholia only two.

In short, it’s a very, very low frequency word and possible found more in cryptic crossword books than actual written texts!

[1] Although I have a copy of Liddell and Scott sitting on the bookshelf, I often use the Perseus Search tools at Tufts University. The search page (http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/search) let’s you search for Greek words and includes Liddell and Scott. Well worth bookmarking and very useful for looking for examples of Greek words in a number of classical texts.

Almost six years ago, the UK’s The Guardian newspaper contained a short article by feature writer Jon Henley – not to be confused with the drummer, and later solo artist, from The Eagles, Don Henley. Entitled A glossary of US military torture euphemisms, it present a short list of words and phrases used by government agencies to talk about things that they really don’t want to talk about. Where most people would define “taking someone by force and holding them against their will” as kidnapping, the military would describe this as special renditions – well, as long as it’s our folks who are doing the rendering! And when “enemy combatants” are subjected to water-boarding or sleep deprivation, this is not torture but enhanced coercive interrogation techniques. “Torture” is what Johnny Foreigner does to our chaps, not what we do to theirs.

UK's The Guardian

UK’s The Guardian

Euphemism, from the Greek euphemos (εὔϕημος) meaning “speak well” or “fair of speech,” is a standard tool in politics, and something that George Orwell excoriated in his classic 1946 article, Politics and the English Language, describing it as using language in”the defense of the indefensible.” It’s also a social tool that allows us to talk about sensitive or shocking topics without actually using words that offend our sensibilities or shock. People don’t die, they pass on; they aren’t sacked, they’re let go; they’re not drunk just a little worse for wear; and they are not lying just being economical with the truth.

The general aim of euphemism is to “soften the blow.” Euphemism implicitly recognizes that words are not just a cluster of sounds that transmit meanings but that they can also be carriers of significant emotional content. Shit, crap, dung, poop, and feces are all the same thing – but you wouldn’t use them all with your granny or a Sunday school teacher [1].

Peculation is a word that should be used more as a euphemism but hasn’t really caught on. It’s defined as;

The appropriation of money or property held in trust for another by a servant, employee, or official; esp. the embezzlement of public funds belonging to a ruler, state, or government.

To all intents and purposes, it is really a more polite and less emotionally laden way of saying embezzlement.


The word made an appearance in 1658 as an entry in a dictionary written by Edward Phillips, defined as; “a robbing of the Prince or Common-wealth.” It appears to have then been used on and off during the 18th and 19th centuries but was much rarer in the 20th. It’s use in the UK’s Daily Telegraph in the phrase;

It would no longer tolerate a form of politics that favoured politicians above people and peculation above principles

seems to be more of a nod toward alliteration than any serious attempt to revive the word.

We can trace it back to post-classical Latin peculatio, the embezzlement of money or property, which in turn comes from classical Latin peculari meaning “to rob or defraud.” Earlier than this was peculium, used to refer to both money and private property. This same root (peculium) is also the origin of the words peculiar, which is an adjective used to describe something “distinguished in nature, character, or attributes from others; unlike others” or “special, remarkable, or distinctive.” The sense is that of a quality that is private to an individual.

Although peculation appeared as a noun in 1658, the word peculator was around two years earlier in 1656, as an entry in the first edition of Thomas Blount’s Glossographia; or, A dictionary interpreting all such hard words, whether Hebrew, Greek or Latin… as are now used in our refined English tongue. By the early 18th century it had slipped on its verbal slippers to appear as to peculate, followed by wearing its adjectival cloaks of peculative (1779) and peculant (1853).

Sadly it’s now more likely to turn up in a spelling bee more than the pages of a newspaper, magazine, book, or web page – unless the web page is talking about the etymology of the word! The mighty Corpus of Contemporary American English has 5 examples from its 450 million word database, and even the mind-bogglingly huge 1.9 billion word sample of the Corpus of Web-based Global English (GloWbE) only turns up 31 instances.

Slim pickings indeed.

[1] I know that someone reading this will probably have a granny who swears like the proverbial trooper and can use more profanities than the Urban Dictionary can keep up with. However, the point is that we not only choose our words to convey a specific meaning but that we may choose different but similar words based on the context in which we expect to be saying them.

zany /ˈzeɪnɪ/

Sometime last week, I was doing a crossword where one of the answers was zany. The clue was along the lines of “Back from Arizona to the Big Apple the crazy way.” For those who don’t typically do cryptic crosswords – a staple for any cruciverbalist from the UK – the “back from Arizona” gives you the ZA elements (the abbreviation for Arizona backwards), the “Big Apple” gives you NY, and the “crazy” is the clue itself – the meaning of the word zany.

On reflection, it seemed to me a little old-fashioned, and not a word I recall using or seeing for many years. If anything, my recollection would be in relation to ads for “zany” American TV shows or movies. And I say “American” because classic Brit comedies like Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the Benny Hill show, even The Young Ones, were never, to my recollection, labeled “zany” – more likely “crazy,” “loony” or perhaps “surreal.”

According to the Corpus of Historical American  (COHA), my go-to source for questions about word use over time, the word seems to have made its appearance in the 1930’s, peaked in the 70’s, and is now on a slow decline.

Zany over time

Zany over time

As to its origins, it’s a relatively recent word from the 16th century where it was used to refer to;

…a comic performer attending on a clown, acrobat, or mountebank, who imitates his master’s acts in a ludicrously awkward way; a clown’s or mountebank’s assistant, a merry-andrew, jack-pudding; sometimes used vaguely for a professional jester or buffoon in general.

Resisting the temptation to go off and explore the delightfully intriguing – and clearly underused – Jack-Pudding, the reason the word applies to a comic performer is that it refers to the name of characters in a form of Italian comedy called Commedia dell’arte. In its day, which is the 16th century, it was the Improv comedy of the age. Actors wearing masks would give improvised performances, and the clown characters would be called zanis or zannis, which in turn comes from the Italian Gianni meaning “John.” From this, it was just a small step to switch the word from a noun to an adjective that could be used to describe someone behaving like a “zani.”

Picture of a clown


This use of the word – as an adjective – is now the dominant one. In fact, it’s so dominant that most people don’t even know that it was originally a noun and are surprised to discover its origin. The single reference to zany in the COHA chart above in 1840 is as a noun from Herman Melville’s Mardi and a Voyage Thither, where he writes, “Azzageddi, you are a zany!”

Between 1870 and 1890, the COHA examples similarly have it as a noun, but by 1940, we see a mix of examples of the word as both noun and adjective, and by 1960 it is almost exclusively used as the adjective.

The flip has happened.

Either Life has been incredibly busy of late or I have been terribly lazy (idle, indolent, slothful, lurdan, recrayed [1]) because I just discovered that my last post was over a month ago, which is a sorry state of affairs when I’d always planned for weekly updates. I mean, how hard can it be to write something once a week? Well, apparently harder than I thought!

I was mortified! How could so many weeks slip past without me noticing? It’s bad enough that I’m plagued with the notion that I’m getting closer to being dead but to find that my tumbling towards becoming a footnote in the Great Dictionary in the Sky is accelerating just pumps up my existential angst to a new and frightening level.

Of course, when I say I am mortified, I am using the word in its most recent and common sense; deeply humiliated and embarrassed. Jonathan Swift used the word in this sense in his A Tale of the Tub (1710) where he says, “I have been told, Sir W. T. was sufficiently mortify’d at the Term.”

Jonathan Swift: when center partings were in

Jonathan Swift: when center partings were in

Prior to this sense, in the 15th century it was used to mean “affected by gangrene or necrosis” and this connotation was also around when Swift was writing, as we can see in Danial Defoe’s story, Captain Singleton (1720)  in the sentence, “He cut off a great deal of mortified Flesh.” Fortunately for all of us, we turn realities into metaphor but not the other way around.

The OED defines its original adjectival use as being related to the body;

Of persons, or their actions, occupations, intentions, etc.: dead to sin or worldly desires; having the appetites and passions in subjection; prompted by a spirit of religious self-mortification; ascetic, unworldly.

The verb form, mortify, existed prior to this in the 14th century and meant to deprive of life, to kill, put to death, or to render insensible. It derives from the Anglo-Norman and Old French word, mortifier, which means “to cause to die.” The use of the verb as meaning “to cause embarrassment” can also be tracked to the 16th century – about a century before Swift’s use of it as an adjective. Mind you, just because we may not see a word in print doesn’t mean it isn’t being used orally, so the adjective form of the word will have existed much earlier than 1720.

We can track the word back to the post-classical Latin mortificare, to deprive of life, which in turn derives from the classical Latin mors meaning death. Digging even deeper we can hypothesize that mors has the same Indo-European root as morth, which means murder. And murder being pretty much a common feature of humanity, it’s not surprising that it pops up slightly modified in different languages e.g. Ancient Greek βροτός and Sanskrit mṛtyu. Russian morit means “to exterminate” and a previously covered word, moribund, comes from the same root.

Mortified has also been used in the past as a cookery term to refer to the process of tenderizing meat by hanging it up. Fynes Moryson (1566-1630), a Cambridge Fellow, spent four years traveling around Europe to gather information about the customs and mores of the different countries he visited, which resulted in a three-volume social commentary with the splendid title of An Itinerary: Containing His Ten Years Travel Through the Twelve Dominions of Germany, Bohemia, Switzerland, Netherland, Denmark, Poland, Italy, Turkey, France, England, Scotland and Ireland. In this, he makes the comment that, “The French alone delight in mortified meates.”

This connotation of the word is clearly not around today in our food-obsessed Western culture, where celebrity chefs are feted and lauded as something more than what they really are – cooks with an attitude [2]. Still, it’s probably only a matter of time before some pretentious food snob decides to add “mortified pork” to the menu.

The other big use of mortified is in connection with religious ritual, where mortification is;

The action of mortifying the body, its appetites, etc.; the subjection or bringing under control of one’s appetites and passions by the practice of austere living, esp. by the self-infliction or voluntary toleration of bodily pain or discomfort.

Any religion worth its salt has to include some element of mortification or else it runs the risk of being seen as “soft.” Hair shirts, self-flogging, lopping off body parts, and fasting are some of the ways used to “kill off” bodily desires, all of which are wicked, evil, sinful, or simply wrong in the eyes of a religious body. As H.L. Mencken has so famously said, “Puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” I’d be so bold as to suggest that the more fundamentalist a religion is, the greater its use of mortification.

Image copyright of the Walters Art  Museum under a Creative Commons license

St. Jerome feeling mortified

And as a final note, if you’re one of those people who thinks their mortgage is a “dead weight,” you are closer to the etymological truth than you know! The gage element of mortgage means “a pledge,” so your mortgage could be called a “death pledge” – although not with the meaning that “I’ll be paying this damned thing until I die.” The “death” element comes from the idea that when you take out a loan to pay for something, the loan becomes “dead” to the creditor when it’s paid off in full. Otherwise, if you fail to pay it off, it the thing you bought becomes the property of the creditor and so becomes “dead” to you.

[1]  indolent (1710), slothful (1400), recrayed (1340), lurdan (1330), idle (825).

[2] The elevation of cooks to the level of superstars is, for me, a wonderful example of the absurdity of life, where millions of people in the world are starving while others spend the GDP of a small country to eat a tiny plate of meat and vegetables given a fancy name by some self-important, self-obsessed, pan-wielding snob, whose only skill is to make a potato taste slightly better than some other cook’s spud, which is of zero relevance to a starving family who would be happy to eat the damn thing raw and covered in shit just to stay alive. Politics over.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,121 other followers