or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Rites and Wrongs

English spelling has been through so many tortuous changes throughout its history that its finer points are almost punishment to the learner and the inattentive.

The correct spelling of "sacrilegious" is difficult for--in fact, unknown to--many, perhaps most, people because the the last three syllables sound exactly like another word known to all, "religious". (Googling "sacreligious", I got 127,000 hits: the correct "sacrilegious" netted 862,000, which suggests that people have about a one in seven chance of getting it right and that spellcheckers can be a boon to society. A few of these 127,000, of course, are people like me telling everyone that "sacreligious" is wrong, but most of the uses are just plain wrong.)

But "sacrilegious", while it does have a connection to religion, is entirely unrelated to the word "religion". The first half sounds like "sacred" and that, not surprisingly, is exactly where it comes from: Latin "sacer", "sacred" (seen in English "sacerdotal", "of or relating to priests"). The second half is from "legere", "to gather", which I discussed a little here already. To commit sacrilege, therefore, is to gather up sacred objects and...do what? Sell them, defile them, redecorate with them? That's up to the sacrilegious, I guess.

"Religious", by the way, might as well come from (nobody is entirely sure about this) the Latin intensifier "re-" plus "ligare", "to tie", the source of English "ligament" and "ligature", giving us "to bind firmly". ("Re-" plus "ligare" also gives us "reliable". Whether religion is or makes you reliable depends on your point of view.) "Ligare" also gives us such words as "league" (the association: the measure of distance is unrelated), "oblige" (to bind to do something), "alloy" (two metals bound together), and "ally" (someone bound to you).

And finally, except in an extended metaphorical sense, "sacrilege" and "blasphemy" are not the same thing. Sacrilege is something you do to holy objects: blasphemy, from the Greek for "to injure reputation", is something you say about holy people or things.


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