Mar 30, 2016

Etymology Expeditions: Spiritual Songs

I'll admit, while reading A Canticle for Leibowitz I had to look up quite a few words, especially those that had to do with Catholicism. Then came Easter with its passion plays and requiems, and I realised that while those words are familiar to me, I don't actually know what they mean. So here goes: words for spiritual songs.

Let's start with an easy one: hymn.  Meaning "religious song," it comes to us from French ymne, from Latin hymnus "song of praise", from Greek hymnos "song to praise the gods or heroes." It might be a variant of hymenaios ,"wedding song," from the greek god of marriage, Hymen.

What about canticle then? It comes from Latin canticulum "short hymn," diminutive of canticum "song," so "little song"?

Requiem is one of those beautiful words that make you shiver a bit, even if you don't know what it means. It comes from Latin requiem, from requies, "rest," from re- "again, once more" + quies "quiet. It's the first word of the Latin Mass for the Dead.

Passion, as in St. Matthew Passion for example, is easy to understand. It refers to Christ's suffering on the cross in this context, and comes from Old French passion, "Christ's passion, physical suffering," from Latin passionem "suffering, enduring." The usage of "strong emotion, desire" is only from the 14th century, from Late Latin rendering of the Greek pathos as passio. Strange how far the modern usage is from the root of the word. Or is passion always suffering?

That's all for this week. Go think deep, dark thoughts about the nature of the universe now.


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