Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Recently, I received an inquiry from someone who heard a priest at Mass use the word “pericope” in his sermon. The question reminded me of many other words in our religious vocabulary that have fascinating backgrounds.

“Pericope” is a Greek word, taken over directly into English and found in unabridged dictionaries; it simply means “extract” or “section” or “passage.” Essentially, it describes a segment cut out or extracted from a lengthy manuscript in the form of a scroll. In antiquity, books as we know them did not exist; manuscripts were pieced together on scrolls. (Our English word “volume” reflects the Latin volumen, meaning a roll of parchment, for example; the Latin word volvo literally means “I roll up.”) An extract from a scroll was called a “pericope,” meaning “a segment cut out,” as it were. In liturgical usage, a pericope came to mean a segment separated from a unifying scroll and eventually reproduced as such in the book known as the Lectionary.

“Chapel” is another interesting case for study. The word derives from the military campaign cloak (chapele, in old French) of St. Martin of Tours (d. 397). One winter St. Martin gave away half of his cloak (chapele) to a shivering old man – a gesture for which Martin was ridiculed by his peers. Later, Martin saw Christ in a dream/vision wearing part of his cloak, and heard our Savior say, “Martin, yet a catechumen, has covered me with this garment.” When devotion to Martin, who later served as Bishop of Tours, began to spread, his campaign cloak was enshrined, and pilgrims went to see his chapele. By one of those adaptions of language, the shrine itself came to be known as a chapele.

“Cathedral” also has a rich history. The word means the church in which the Bishop’s teaching chair is located; in Latin, cathedra means a “chair.” The Latin phrase ex cathedra signifies that a statement was issued as a formal position by the Holy Father about faith or morals.

“Short shrift,” found even in Shakespeare’s poetry, originally meant a brief confession and absolution. To “be shriven” from sin is to be absolved from sin. In Hamlet, the prince suggests an execution, “Not shrivingtime allow’d.” (V,ii.46) Someone has calculated that “shrift” or “shrive” appears in Shakespeare’s works at least 16 times. (The day prior to Ash Wednesday is called “Shrove Tuesday.”)

Mea culpa is a Latin phrase, found in the Confiteor. It literally means “through my fault.” Today mea culpa is a synonym for an apology or an admission of guilt. Example: “He owes them a mea culpa

“Pontiff,” which is commonly used of the Holy Father, preceded by “Roman,” derives from two Latin words: pons, meaning a “bridge”; and facere, meaning “to make.” Thus, “pontiff” means a “bridge builder.”

Incidentally, there are quite a few Hebrew words from the Old Testament Scriptures, which are now part and parcel of our English liturgy. Amen is an obvious example. In Hebrew it suggests whatever is “reliable” or “firmly grounded.” Hallelujah is another obvious example. (We usually spell the word beginning with A (e.g., Alleluia), owing to Latin influences. Indeed, the Hebrew is a composite of two words: hallel (“praise”) and yah (a descriptive for “God”); as such, it connotes “Praise God” or “God be praised.” The word occurs many times in the Book of Psalms.

Hosanna is a third example. Hoshah is the Hebrew imperative form of the verb yahshah, meaning “to deliver”; the suffix, nah, means “please.” It occurs often in the Book of Psalms. See When You Speak English You’re Often Talking Hebrew, by Rabbi Samuel M. Silver (N.Y., N.Y. Fellowship in Prayer Pub., 1973).

Too, the word “Satan” is a Hebrew derivative; it essentially means “opponent.”

All the Hebrew references above are explained by Rabbi Silver, who sent his booklet to me in August 1976, after reading one of my columns in the The Transcript; I am most appreciative of his help; his letter is still in my files.

One could also note here that not a few English expressions in daily life are rooted in the Old Testament Scriptures. The word “jeremiad,” for instance, meaning a “sad complaint,” reflects the Prophet Jeremiah; and what Rabbi Silver calls his “dolorous prognostications” about what came to be realized in the Babylonian Captivity.

Also, “shibboleth,” meaning a code word or a watchword, is a Hebrew term from Judges 12, where it was the means by which Jephthah distinguished between two groups of men. (The way the word was pronounced was the key to recognition.) “Sabbath” is another Hebrew word. (The verb shahvaht signifies “to rest.”) Even the word “jot” is of Hebrew origin; specifically, it represents the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet; namely, yod.

(For the record, the Hebrew transliterations in this column are the best we can do in English characters; Hebrew, remember, uses a different alphabet, and it is written from the right to the left.)

Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of The Catholic Transcript, and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.