or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Across the Ages

There's no point--is there?--in pretending that going to the gym is anything but boring. It doesn't help when the gym to which you go (because it's so close that you have no excuse not to) plays awful, loud music, so of course you're going to need some sort of headphones. I find I can't listen to music when there's competing music, so usually I just have an audiobook on. Right now I'm reading/hearing something about the Late Middle Ages, which is reasonably interesting, but the emphasis on religion is sort of dull--all those popes and their dick-measuring contests with one another (yes, there were sometimes more than one at a go) and with various kings.

When you talk about popes, of course, the word "pontificate" is going to crop up, the noun, not the verb. The first time it did, I kind of lost the thread of the audiobook, because I had to wonder where it came from. Obvious it's related to, and probably the source of, "pontiff", and just as obviously it's Latin, but after that, what?

I remembered the word "pontifex", but I couldn't remember quite what one was, except that he was a head dude of some sort. As for "pontifex", I couldn't make much sense of that, either; I thought it must surely be descended from Latin "pons", "bridge" (ancestor of French "pont", with the same meaning), but even if that were correct, and I didn't see how it could be, that didn't carry me any further towards the meaning of "pontificate".

As it turned out, all my musings were correct; they just needed some filling in around the edges. A pontifex was a member of the high council of priests in ancient Rome, and this led to English "pontiff", nowadays a synonym for "pope", through French "pontif" and then "pontife".

"Pontifex" itself does in fact derive from "pons", "bridge", to my surprise. (Not a great surprise, since I just didn't see where else the word might have come from; I was surprised rather that I was right; I expected there was just some Latin word I'd never heard before that led to this one.) The first element we've established; the second, "-fex", is from "facere", "to make". A pontifex is a bridge-builder--metaphorical, surely, rather than literal, since I can't quite imagine all those priests with mason's trowels.

And what's more, Latin had a verb, "pontificare", which didn't mean the same as the English verb "pontificate", "to speak pompously", but instead meant "to be an ecclesiastic", which is nice.


Post a Comment

<< Home