One of the delights of listening to small children learn to talk is how they begin to negotiate with language, butchering the pronunciation of various words and misusing others. As we mature, we grow more confident with our use of language, but in some ways we’re all still little children when it comes to the complex and mysterious origin of much of our dictionary. There are supposedly well over 100,000 words in the English language, but even the most well-spoken of us only know about 30,000.
So much of what we say has origins lost in the past, and we only know the meaning of a word by its context. The English language is a never-ending treasure chest with riches to be discovered if we only know the etymology. For instance, take the word, “etymology.” It comes from two Greek words, etymos, which means “true,” and logos, which means “reason.” It means the reasonable study of the true meaning of words. Etymology reveals some fascinating insights about common words we use. As an extension of looking at specific words, there are also common phrases we use with unusual origins that bring their meaning into sharper focus.
Here, for example, are eight common words or phrases that most of us use that originally came from a religious context …
Enthusiasm comes from the Greek root, en-theos, literally meaning, “in God.” To be enthusiastic is to be possessed of divine inspiration and joy. Sometimes, enthusiasm is meant to be used in a negative sense and has connotations of being overly carried away.
Inspiration is also of divine origins. It is from a Latin word meaning, “breathe upon.” It describes the act of being filled up with the life of God, much like Adam had divine life breathed into him at the creation of the first man.
Sanctuaries are places of rest and protection. For those of us who are melodramatic, we might seek sanctuary from our enemies. Or perhaps you think of your home, reading nook, or local coffee shop as a sanctuary of contentment. In a Catholic Church, the area where the altar is placed is marked off by an altar rail; that area is referred to as the sanctuary. This is a good name, because the Latin root of the word literally means, “holy ground.”
Bulletins are probably associated in our minds with notes from our employers about how we need to stop stealing food from the break room refrigerator, or some other informational communication, or the parish newsletter distributed after Mass. The word was made use of by various popes who used “papal bulls” (messages bearing a round lead official seal, or “bulla,” from the Latin word for bubble), to announce important Catholic news to the world.
When your hair stands on end, it means you’re afraid or extremely tense. The phrase is found in the book of Job, where Job’s friend talks about seeing a spirit and how the encounter made his bones shake and hair stand on end.
You don’t want a fly in the ointment, not only because it literally sounds disgusting but metaphorically because it means a flaw has spoiled all your grand plans. The phrase comes from the book of Ecclesiastes and refers to how an anointment that was originally intended for healing would be entirely ruined by a small fly getting stuck in it.
A parting of the ways can be sorrowful because it probably means a quarrel has divided a once like-minded friendship. In the book of Ezekiel, the King of Babylon comes up to a literal parting of the ways as he stands before two roads, essentially deciding which enemy he is going to attack first as he chooses a path to follow.
If I wash my hands of a person, I have officially given up on trying to change their mind, protect them, or really have anything to do with them. It doesn’t seem like a great way to handle a relationship except in exceptional circumstances, but I could see how someone, if they’re frustrated, might say they wash their hands of a particular project at work or a decision a group has made. The phrase comes from the Passion narrative when Pontius Pilate literally washes his hands and has nothing more to do with the trial of Jesus.
10 Common words of Catholic origin