Today’s event, the Inauguration, nudged me to dig up the meaning behind that word. In the civilization that gave birth to ours, the Graeco-Roman, augurs consulted omens when great events loomed ahead. They did so by observing the flight of birds released on the occasion; they noted the path of the birds’ flight and then gave an interpretation. If the omens were favorable, the installation of a leader then took place.
One suspects that in their case, as in ours, the omens always managed to reflect the actual situation indicated by the balance of power. The bird-flight, in our world, is the popular vote. We are the birds whose flight-paths were consulted last November. And now comes the “installation with favorable omens.” Vox populi, vox dei. No doubt the actual path taken by the birds sometimes produced an ambiguous result—and therefore controversy swirled around the augurs’ interpretation. We had such a case on the occasion of George W. Bush’s first term as president—when our augurs, the Supreme Court Justices of the United States, interpreted the flight of birds in Florida in GW’s favor.