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Friday, March 15, 2013

Of matters papal. Or is it popal?

Continuing on in the clerical vein of last week's post about cardinals (I promise I will get less churchy soon), we answer two burning questions.

1) If the noun is "pope", why are the associated words "papal", "papacy", and "Papist" rather than "popal", "popacy", and "Popist"?

One might be tempted to answer, "Because English is ANNOYING!". 

Amongst major European languages, only English has an "o" in this word.
French: pape
Spanish, Portuguese, Italian: papa
German: Papst
Dutch: paus 
Danish: pave 
Polish: papie┼╝
Greek: papas
You get the idea.

So the real question is: why is it "pope" instead of "pape"? 
In ancient Greek, papa was a child's word for "daddy". As we do with father in English, this word was used to address priests. In Hellenistic Greek and Byzantine Greek the word (now papas) was applied to bishops. Latin speakers did the same with their version, papa. By the early 4th century it was being applied especially to the Bishop of Rome, who, by 1073, claimed it as his and his alone.

This was one of the rare words (almost all of them religious terms) borrowed by Anglo-Saxon from Latin after the Anglo-Saxons converted to Christianity. Similarly to other European languages, it was pape in Old English, and is in fact that to this day to some speakers of Scottish English.

But in the SE Midland dialect of English, which went on to dominate English, there were a series of vowel shifts that resulted in pape (originally pronounced PAHpuh) ending up as "pope" by the end of the Middle Ages.  The same thing happened with the word "rope" (originally rap in Anglo-Saxon).

But the related adjectives and nouns were not borrowed into Anglo-Saxon at the same time as the base word. They were borrowed directly from the French or Latin words with their central "a" vowel at the end of the Middle Ages. At this point this particular a-to-o shift had already happened in English and would not happen to any words acquired subsequently.
So "papal" and company remained stuck with their "a",...
while "pope" stuck with its recently acquired "o",...
and we are all stuck with another inconsistency in English.

2)  Why is the Pope called a pontiff?

In ancient Rome, a high priest was known as a pontifex,and the Christian Church took over this name for the Bishop of Rome in the Middle Ages, eventually evolving into "pontiff" in English. Traditional etymologies have held for centuries that the word is literally a maker (-fex) of a bridge (pons, ponti-), presumably between the people and the deity, but this may well be nothing but a folk etymology.

Surprisingly, the verb "pontificate", in addition to its more common disparaging meaning "speak in a pompous or dogmatic manner", has a literal sense, "celebrate a solemn High Mass": " Pope Paul is coming to address the United Nations and pontificate a Mass at Yankee Stadium."

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About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.