Thursday, March 16, 2006

Carnival of the Etymologies

[A regular Thursday feature of "Done With Mirrors"]

Since religion, and specifically Christianity, has been a topic around here this week, I thought it might be a good time to explore the history and etymology of the names of some of the more prominent Christian sects in America.

The Catholic church obviously wasn't the Catholic church when it represented the entirety of European and Mediterranean Christianity. But it was catholic with a lower-case -c- in those years, since that word merely means, literally, "universally accepted." It comes from the Late Latin adjective catholicus "universal, general," a word the Romans borrowed from Greek katholikos, a word coined for the purpose from the phrase kath' holou. This is composed of kata, which usually means "down" (e.g. cataclysm, literally "a washing down;" catastrophe, literally "a down-turn;" a cathedral is etymologically a "sitting down"). But the sense of the word in catholic is "about." The second half of the word is the genetive of Greek holos "whole."

Ironically, Catholic, with a big -c-, began to be applied to the Church in Rome after the Protestant revolt broke out (its first record in English is c.1554), exactly when the description was no longer true. The more common way to refer to it in England after the religious break there was Romanist Romish, or Papist, all of which were considered insulting. Roman Catholic began to be used in 1605, originally as a conciliatory formation from the time of the Spanish Match.

The Orthodox Churches never claimed universality in their titles, but they do claim to be the true church, since Greek orthodoxos means "having the right opinion." It is a compound of orthos "right, true, straight" (as in orthopedics) and doxa "opinion, praise," from dokein "to seem."

The Proto-Indo-European roots of the two parts of this compound are *eredh- "high" (for orthos, which thus is related to Latin arduus "high, steep") and *dek- "to take, accept" (which gives doxein relatives in decent, doctor, decorate, dignity and discern).

Protestant of course is rooted in protest, which is from Latin protestari "to declare publicly, testify, protest." It's a compound of pro- "forth, before" and testari "testify," from testis "witness" (the same root as is found in testimony, testicle and many other words). The original sense of protest is preserved in the phrase "to protest one's innocence."

The meanings we usually associate with protest such as "statement of disapproval" are more modern than the religious use of the word. When the word protestant entered the religious wars (it is known in English from 1539), it carried a sense of "one who declares or states (something) formally or solemnly."

Protestant was used in German in reference to the princes and free cities who "declared" their dissent from the decision of the Diet of Speyer (1529) denouncing the Reformation. The word was taken up by the Lutherans in Germany (Swiss and French preferred Reformed), and it became the general word for "adherents of the Reformation in Germany," then "member of any Western church outside the Roman communion."

The Catholics, however, called all Protestants, regardless of sect, Lutherans in the 16th century.

The Irish have been calling their eastern neighbors Prots since at least 1725. Protestant (work) ethic, however, is translated from German, specifically from Max Weber's "Die protestantische Ethik und der 'Geist' des Kapitalismus" (1904).

The emergence of Catholic modified the use of Protestant in England, however. In the early 17th century, English Churchmen were happy to call themselves Protestants and their opponents Papists. But the use of Catholic, whose literal sense still was apparent to our better-educated ancestors, seemed to cast the non-Catholic denominations in a lesser category. Consequently, Anglican rose in favor to mean "of the reformed Church of England" (as opposed to the Roman Church).

An episcopal church is simply a church governed by a bishop (as the Anglican church in the U.S. and Scotland). In fact, the word bishop is nothing but an Anglo-Saxon garbling of Late Latin episcopus. The Latin word was borrowed from Greek episkopos "watcher, overseer," a title extended to various government officials and later taken over in a Church sense.

The word is a compound of epi- "over" and skopos "watcher," from skeptesthai "look at." That names bishop and uneasy relation to skeptic. Bishop was given a specific sense in the Church, but episkopos also was used in the New Testament as a descriptive title for elders, and continues as such in some non-hierarchical Christian sects, such as the Amish and Mennonites.

[The Amish are named for Jacob Amman, a 17th century Swiss Mennonite preacher who founded the sect; it was originally spelled Omish, which reflects the pronunciation in Pennsylvania German dialect; the Mennonites are named for Menno Simons (1492-1559) of Friesland, founder of the sect. Presumably they took his first name to avoid the negative connotations of Simon in Christianity, courtesy of Simon Magus. Their Moravian spiritual kin, the Hutterites, were named for their founder, Jacob Hutter who did not also found a chain of wing restaurants with an owl theme.]

The Presbyterian church took its name because it is a church governed by "elders" (as opposed to bishops). Presbyter has been a title for Church elders since early Christian times; it comes from Greek presbyteros "an elder," which also is an adjective meaning "older." It is the comparative form of presbys "old," a word of uncertain origin, but apparently meaning "one who leads the cattle," from *pres- "before" and the root of bous "cow."

Baptists were so-called because they revived the ancient Christian custom of baptism by full immersion. But like the Amish and Mennonites they also believed in adult baptism, and so their opponents called them all Anabaptists, which means "one who baptizes over again." The sect arose in Germany 1521, and the name probably dates from its first generation, when, as a new faith, they were baptizing converts who already had been baptized as infants in the older Christian churches. The British Baptists are not of this sect, and the anabaptist name was applied to them perhaps opprobriously, perhaps mistakenly, or perhaps due to the multiple immersions of their baptisms when they were a young sect.

The name, like so many, is from a Greek word, baptein "to dip, steep, dye, color."

Methodist, which Johnson's dictionary (1755) described as "One of a new kind of puritans lately arisen, so called from their profession to live by rules and in constant method" was the name taken almost at once by a Protestant religious sect founded in 1729 at Oxford University by John and Charles Wesley. But the name had been used since at least 1686 for various new methods of worship. Method is from Greek methodus "scientific inquiry, method of inquiry," originally "pursuit, following after," from meta- "after" and hodos "a traveling, way."

Quaker has never been an official name of the Religious Society of Friends, but it was said to have been applied to them in 1650 by Justice Bennett at Derby, from George Fox's admonition to his followers to "tremble at the Word of the Lord." However, like Methodist the word is older than the sect that now carries it, and it was used earlier of foreign sects given to fits of shaking during religious fervor, and that is likely the source here.