Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Secularization of Enthusiasm

While on the subject of words, I might as well record my latest discovery. As usually in English, such come about because English is a kind of Mississippi of a language, carrying innumerable words that aren’t naked, so to say, thus they don’t reveal their etymology; and they do not because they come from Greek, Latin, or yet other languages. Enthusiasm is one of those. We know what it means—and that’s it. If I look at its German equivalent, I get Begeisterung; here the etymology is clear: Geist is “spirit”; the prefix be suggest “possession,” and the ending suggests “state of.” Thus “state of being possessed by spirit.” The Hungarian is lelkesedés; here lélek is “spirit” and the suffix signals “state of being in.”

Well, per Online Etymology Dictionary, enthusiasm derives from the Greek. It deepest root is entheos, literally “in God”; in the Greek sense God would not be capitalized, thus “possessed by a god, divinely inspired” is what they meant, and, by extension, being in an ecstacy (which last means to be “out of place,” beyond the ordinary.) In English, certainly, the word had a strong religious context until the early eighteenth century—the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment. With the Puritans (1650s), it took on the negative meaning of excessive religious emotion, marking a transition, you might say. These days the word has become secularized to such an extent that we enthuse about just about everything. For that reason it surprised me when, reading an essay in Stephen Jay Gould’s The Lying Stones of Marrakech, I encountered his own etymological clean-up of this linguistic fossil.

We have also, to be sure, made the first steps back to entheos already thanks to the genius that hides in science fiction. We’ve given spirit another name in Star Wars, to be sure. But you will know what I mean when I close with these words: “May the force be with you.

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