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Friday, August 17, 2012

Please stand!

Over the past few weeks we have heard many national anthems played at the Olympics, and meanwhile in my church choir I've been singing another kind of anthem, a choral setting of a biblical text.

Where does this word "anthem" come from? It has come a very long way, having its ultimate origins in the Greek elements anti (against) and phone (sound). This became the church Latin word antiphona (a composition sung with one choir responding to another), which has given us the word "antiphon".

But antiphona was fated to have another evolution as well. When the Anglo-Saxons were confronted with this church Latin word, they decided to drop a few syllables and thus turned antiphona into antefne. Even for the Anglo-Saxons, though, antefne was a hard mouthful of consonants, so gradually the f became an m and the final ne dropped off altogether, leaving us with "anthem" by about 1500.

Throughout this time, it maintained the original meaning of an antiphonal composition, but starting with Chaucer, it also meant a piece of scripture set to music. Any singer who has ever made it through Holy Week can sympathize with the speaker in Henry IV part 2 who said "For my voice, I have lost it with hallowing, and singing of Anthems." The word "anthem" for such pieces tends to be used of English compositions and the Church of England. On the continent and in Catholic churches such religious choral pieces are more likely to be called "motets", a diminutive of the French word mot (meaning "word"): a "little word".

Shakespeare also used "anthem" more figuratively to mean any song of praise, and this led ultimately to its being used to describe the royalist song that gained popularity in the mid-1700s. But even in late Victorian times, pedants were complaining that "anthem" was not the "right" word for "God Save the Queen", and that it should be called a "national hymn" instead (as indeed national anthems are in French and German and other languages). This just shows that pedants never win out in matters lexical. Just think how they would react to the latest evolution of the word, as in "Technohead's irresistibly zany pro-marijuana anthem". Definitely not suitable for the Olympics. Or church!

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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.