Tuesday, July 24, 2007


[posted by Callimachus]

It's been a year since I discontinued the "Carnival of the Etymologies." It was just too much work. But, as I've often been reminded, people seem more interested in that than anything else I write here. Which I suppose makes sense; it's the one thing you couldn't get anywhere else.

So maybe I'll revisit it from time to time, but I'm not going to shackle myself to it as a regular feature.

At the end, I was doing it as a "guess if these words are related" quiz. I'll continue that, for now. The pairing for today is cult and occult. Make your guess, then read on.

Cult comes via French from Latin cultus "care, cultivation, worship," originally "tended, cultivated." Literally, it is the past participle of the verb colere "to till." Cult was rarely used in English after the 17th century; it revived in mid-19th century writings as a word for ancient or primitive rituals.

Colere also is the source colony; in addition to "to till" the verb meant "to inhabit," which, in ancient times, generally was the same thing as "to till." Its Greek cousin provides the second element in bucolic.

Cultus also is familiar in culture which originally came to English in the 15th century with the literal sense "the tilling of land." The figurative sense of "cultivation through education" is first attested in 1510. The meaning "the intellectual side of civilization" is from 1805; that of "collective customs and achievements of a people" is from 1867.

Yeats, knowing it or not, wove the two etymological threads of cultus -- the intellectual and the spiritual -- in his work.

"For without culture or holiness, which are always the gift of a very few, a man may renounce wealth or any other external thing, but he cannot renounce hatred, envy, jealousy, revenge. Culture is the sanctity of the intellect."

So what about occult? It comes from Latin occultus "hidden, concealed, secret," and it is the past participle of occulere "to cover over, to conceal," which is a compound of ob "over" and a verb related to celare "to hide."

The two words, cult and occult, seem more closely related now because occult moved into some specific sense in the 17th century that connected it to cult-like supernatural pseudo-sciences (magic, alchemy, astrology, etc.).

Among the Modern English words derived from celare are cell and related cellular, celluloid, cellulite, and cellophane; cellar (from Latin cellarium "pantry, storeroom," literally "group of cells"); ceiling; and conceal.

Latin cella "a small room, hut" was borrowed into Celtic languages and forms the Kil- at the start of many place names in the Celtic lands, where it means "cell (of a hermit)," or sometimes "church, burial place."

Latin cilium "eyelid" also is related to celare; hence supercilious, from Latin superciliosus "haughty, arrogant," via the notion of raising the eyebrow to express haughtiness.

The Proto-Indo-European root of celare is *kel- "conceal," which has many modern descendants across the map. In the Germanic languages, the initial sound became an h-, and the root is represented by helmet, hall, hole, holster, and Hell, all connected by the notion of "covering or concealing."

The Greek descendants of the root include the verb kalyptein "to cover, conceal," which turns up in English in Calypso, the name of the sea nymph in the "Odyssey," whose name literally means "hidden, hider" (originally she was a death goddess). Linguists aren't sure what her connection, if any, is to the West Indian type of song (so called from 1934). Kalyptein also forms the second half of apocalypse, from Greek apokalyptein "uncover," a compound of apo- "from" and kalyptein. John of Patmos' book Apokalypsis was rendered literally into English as Revelations by Wyclif c.1380. Since it contains the Christian end-of-the-world story, the name has come to denote any such event.

So, in short, cult and occult are not related.