Tuesday, October 11, 2011


Some quite delightful books exist that, nonetheless, are often overlooked, neglected. Such is, in my own case, one called Medieval Wordbook, by Madeleine Pelner Cosman, published in 1996. My own copy was a birthday gift in 1997 from fellow word-lover Brigitte. Today I ran into a look-up dilemma. I was trying to determine the roots of the word apophatic, as in that kind of theology, meaning negative, in connection with a post elsewhere. Nothing, nothing anywhere. I therefore dug deeply into the most hidden stacks of my dictionaries and found the delightful book above. It didn’t have that word either, but there it was. After my labors were over, I opened the book at random—not a bad way to enjoy such books, and discovered hokus-pokus. That word is more often rendered as hocus-pocus—and indeed that spelling is better. Here I learned, to my surprise, that its origins are the Latin words in the mass meaning “This is the body of the Lord”: hoc est corpus domini. That startled me until I read on. Turns out that medieval people used a contraction of that, by them, oft-heard phrase, at the consecration of the host, at mass, to characterize meaningless and deceptive magical incantations. As my source continues: “Quack physicians were sued by irate patients or by offended physicians’ and surgeons’ guilds for using verbal charms and talismans of nonsensical Latin in fraudulent cures.” Who’d have known—and who’d have linked it to the Latin Mass, itself now obsolete.


  1. I hope you found the Greek roots of apophatic: the preposition apo for "away from" and phemi (forgive the character-butchery) for "talk, speak"--in Greek, "to deny."

  2. Yes, I did--but thanks you nonetheless...


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