or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, August 07, 2008


Science blogger PZ Myers got himself a communion wafer and proceeded to do an awful thing to it: he put a nail through it and tossed it into the garbage. Oh, wait; that isn't awful at all, since, as he's been saying for some time, it's just a cracker. (Some people believe that it's the transsubstantiated flesh of Jesus, but be that as it may, they can't really forbid him from doing what he likes to a wafer he happens to have, any more than a Hindu can forbid me from eating beef, for the simple reason that in a civilized society, people don't get to impose their religious beliefs on non-believers.)

Here's a recent posting on the situation. The piece contains, naturally enough, the words "consecrate" and "desecrate" and "sacred", and waitaminute, if "desecrate" looks as if it should break down into "de-sacred-ize", and that's what it means, then what's the deal with the vowel?

It's very old, and it's very simple, as it turns out.

Latin "sacer" meant "sacred", and self-evidently, I would think, gave us that word. The Latin prefix "com-", which becomes "con-" before sibilants, was joined to "sacer" to make the verb "consecrare", " to declare to be sacred". This came into English to make "consecrate". The vowel changed from "-a-" to "-e-" (in Latin, long before English even existed) for what in retrospect is a fairly obvious reason; in compounds, "sacer" turns into "-secr-", because "consecrare" is slightly easier to pronounce than "consacrare", the vowel in question being slightly closer to an unstressed vowel, a schwa.

"Desecrate" wasn't a Latin word at all; it was an English coinage, showing up about three hundred years after "consecrate" entered the language, and modelled after it. If "consecrate" means "to make sacred", then "deconsecrate" would logically mean to reverse the process, to secularize something previously holy (and "deconsecrate" is in fact a word, applied to disused churches and such), and "desecrate" would be the opposite of "consecrate"; to defile, to make unholy.


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