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Friday, August 30, 2013

A peculiar people

In last week's post about "minster" and "minister", I mentioned that Westminster Abbey has an odd designation: it is a "royal peculiar", as is St. George's Chapel, Windsor Castle, where my choir also sang. 

In the Church of England, a peculiar is a parish, church, chapel, or ecclesiastical court exempt from the jurisdiction of the diocese in which it is physically located.There are very few of these left now, but there are still churches that are "royal peculiars": chapels exempt from any jurisdiction but that of the sovereign. The church belongs not to the diocese, like most churches in denominations with bishops, but is the exclusive possession of the crown.

"Peculiar" has a surprising range of meanings, going from this "exclusive or particular to" meaning, all the way to "bizarre", a phenomenon that always causes smirks in church when it's time for the following Bible reading in the King James Version: "Ye are a chosen generation, a royal Priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people"  (1 Peter ii. 9). The idea is that of a people chosen exclusively by God, but of course that's not what springs immediately to the 21st- century mind! Modern translations opt for things like "God's special possession", "God's own possession", "a people for God's own possession", "His own special people", etc.

Even more surprising is that "peculiar" started its long semantic journey as a Latin word meaning "cattle": pecu. From this arose a derivative peculium (property), since cattle were private property. The adjective related to this was peculiaris (relating to private property). So "peculiar" came to designate things that were a person's private property, something that belonged to you and no one else. You could say of a politician that he "had not so much advanced the common wealth as his own private things and peculiar estate" (that's a quote from 1548, which just goes to show that some things never change!). 

From designating material things such as your possessions, "peculiar" soon came to be applied also to more abstract qualities and characteristics that were unique or "peculiar" to one person or group. And since anything that distinguishes one person from the rest of humanity usually becomes stigmatized as strangeness, "peculiar" eventually came to mean downright odd. 

Although languages can manage one word having many different meanings, when one of those meanings is SO different from another, and has negative connotations to boot, it usually results in the less negative meaning falling out of the language. I am therefore hereby going out on a limb and predicting the demise of the "unique to" sense of peculiar. It's already ailing, or the Bible translators wouldn't be tinkering with that verse we saw.

There. People are always asking me to predict what's going to happen with the language. Usually I demur, but now I've done it. Be careful what you ask for!

Incidentally, another word that came from this same Latin word for cattle is "pecuniary", because cattle signified wealth and money.

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  1. There’s a famous British ale that originated in Masham in north Yorkshire called Theakston’s Old Peculier (sic). Theakton’s web site has this to say about the name:

    In the early years of the modern brewing era, about two hundred years ago, many brewers produced a dark, strong ‘stock’ beer in the winter months, to provide a base amount of fermented beer to add to beers brewed in the rather more volatile months of the summer. Old Peculier probably owes its origins to this. The name pays tribute to the unique ecclesiastical status of Masham as a ‘Court of the Peculier’ and is also a reference to the strong characteristic of the beer. For many years it was affectionately referred to as Yorkshire’s “Lunatic’s Broth.”

    Philip Jackman, Orillia, Ontario

  2. The editors of "Voices United" (United Church hymn book published in 1996) didn't mess with Isaac Watts' words in his hymn, "Jesus shall reign wheree'er the sun". He wrote,"Let every creature rise and bring/Peculiar honours to our King".
    As a child, I thought that a very peculiar line.

  3. So in Sense and Sensibility, when the Colonel offers the parish on his estate to Edward (without the intervention of a Bishop or something) is that one of these peculiars?

  4. I feel that the downward spiral of the word peculiar has to do with it's usage in the vernacular as euphemism. While, I always thought peculiar as "different" or "interesting," polite society will use it instead of "odd." Leading to my new saying, "if you can't say something nice, don't ruin a perfectly good word!"


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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.