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10 Common words of Catholic origin


Quinn Dombrowski | CC BY-SA 2.0

Jean Elizabeth Seah - published on 09/23/17

Most people don't realize that that when they're ordering coffee or wearing pants, they're touching Catholic history.
“The roots of language are irrational and of a magical nature.”

– Jorge Luis Borges, prologue to El otro, el mismo

What do cappuccino, beads, pants and dominoes have in common? These words are derived from Catholic terminology. Here are the etymologies of these and other words. Can you think of more?

1) Cappuccino

In Italian, the Capuchins (a branch of the Order of Friars Minor, or Franciscans) are known as Cappucini. This is derived from the word capuccio or capuche meaning “hood,” from which both the friars and the Capuchin monkey take their monikers. It is said in most dictionaries that the beverage was named for the color of the Capuchins’ brown habits. A Catholic source suggests that, following the ousting of the Ottomans from Europe, Christian soldiers came upon their stashes of coffee beans. To  make it less bitter, the Christians mixed it with honey and milk, and in honor of the peacemaker Capuchin Blessed Mark of Aviano, they christened it cappuccino.

2) Dominoes

The name of the game comes from the pieces’ resemblance to Venetian Carnival masks known as domini, which were white with black spots. These masks were so named, in turn, because they resembled French priests’ winter hoods, which were black on the outside and white on the inside. The name was ultimately derived from the Latin dominus, meaning “lord” or “master.”

3) Bead

The word “bead” came from the Old English word gebed, meaning “prayer.” The shift in meaning is recorded in 1377, from the tradition of using the Rosary to keep count of prayers. The German cognate bitte means “please,” in the sense of “I beg you,” from the idea of prayer being a request.

4) Paternoster Lifts (Elevators)

First built in 1884 by Londoner J. E. Hall as the Cyclic Elevator, the name paternoster (“Our Father,” the first two words of the Lord’s Prayer in Latin) was originally applied to the device because the elevator is conveyed in a loop so its movement resembles the praying of a rosary.

5) Tawdry
The annual medieval Saint Audrey’s Fair was held at Ely on the Feast of Saint Etheldreda, queen of Northumbria (c.636 – 679); she was also known as Audrey, and died of an enormous throat tumor, which she accepted as penance for her youthful vanity in wearing necklaces. From the exceptional shoddiness of the merchandise sold at the fair, in particular the neckerchiefs and cheap jewelry, came the word tawdry, a corruption of “Saint Audrey.

6) Pants
The men’s tights known as pantaloons were a 1660s French fashion associated with Pantaloun, the character of a silly old Venetian man in Italian comedy who wore tight trousers. This character’s name came from Saint Pantaleon of Nicomedia (c. 275 – 305), who was one of the late-medieval Fourteen Holy Helpers and popular in Venice. The Greek saint’s name, Panteleímon, means “all-compassionate.” He was a physician who, upon inheriting his father’s property, freed all the slaves and gave the wealth to the poor. He received his name for forgiving his imperial executioners.

“Pants” is a shortened form of pantaloons, first recorded in 1840.

7)  Fiacre
CatholicSaints.Info records: “[Saint] Fiacre’s connection to cab drivers is because the Hôtel Saint-Fiacre in Paris, France, rented carriages. People who had no idea who Fiacre was referred to the cabs as Fiacre cabs, and eventually just as fiacres. Those who drove them assumed Fiacre as their patron.”

8) Catherine Wheel
The firework is named after the instrument of torture, the breaking wheel, on which St. Catherine was martyred. She is also one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers.

9) Holystone
A soft and brittle sandstone that was formerly used in the British and American Navies for scouring and whitening the wooden decks of ships. The term may have come from the fact that “holystoning the deck” was originally done on one’s knees, as in prayer. Smaller holystones were called “prayer books” and larger ones “bibles.” Another legend attributes the name “holystone” to the story that such pieces of stone were taken for use from St. Nicholas Church in Great Yarmouth, or the ruins of St. Helen’s Church on the Isle of Wight.

10) Goodbye/Adiós
Goodbye is an abbreviation of the parting wish, God be with you.
Adiós in Spanish literally means “to God,” from the old phrase A Dios vais, “You’re going to God.”

CatholicismChurch History
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