Monday, 8 February 2010

From Guts to The Vatican in 9 Paragraphs

Being busy, this post may be a little shorter than others, for which I can only apologise. However, I hope its content is pleasing, and maybe a tad educational. Recently, I've started to pick up on the kinds of people who're actually reading this, and I'm aiming at the target accordingly. I live to serve, readers.

The subject of today's blog (I thought about using the word "lecture", but deemed it off-putting and academically stuffy) is, once again, a single word. It came into my head whilst I was walking the dog, as so many things do. Thing is, I already knew where this word came from pretty well, so I thought it would make a neat little post. When it came to double checking my knowledge, however, I found a much larger expanse of words from the same root than I had previously known. Exciting stuff. So, I hasten to present you with:


It's a verb, and a nice one at that. If I told you that it's mostly used to express something with an air of pomposity and self importance, I doubt you'd be surprised. It even looks self-important. Maybe that's because we rarely see other words like it in English these days, making it stand out and look special, like when your favourite band do a cover of a song completely out of their style, and it works beautifully. If it looks a little uncommon, then where do we get it from?

The bit that stands out, to most people, would be the "pont". It doesn't refer to the archaic "pont", which is used as a noun for bridge, and gives us the lovely looking adjective "pontal". Nor does it refer to Pontefract, the place a certain style of cake comes from. No, we usually see this particular "pont" in English as "ponti-", if we see it at all. That's because it's from a Latin word (the most interesting ones usually are), seen in full as "pontifex".

[Just a little edit: the "pont" in "pontifex" probably came from the word for bridge, and "fex" is most likely from "facere", to make. That would make a "pontifex" a "bridgebuilder". Nice thought, considering the next paragraph.]

Now, the classical scholar will be able to tell you all about how a pontifex was a priest who worked in the temples, and so on. Personally, I prefer the role of the "haruspex", which we used to translate as "gut-gazer", but that doesn't seem to have caught on. Unfortunately, the pontifex didn't spend much time looking at the entrails of dead birds, but was a bit more of a vicar-figure. That's no coincidence, as you may have worked out by now. If we see "pontifex" at all these days, it's in "Pontifex Maximus", another name for the Pope. In order not to see this as all high and mighty, just translate as "Big Bishop".

We find ourselves now talking about a religious word, where "to pontificate" pretty much means to talk like the Pope. In that case, it's really not hard to see why it might be a little pompous. The Vatican doesn't do humility. But, before I offend around a billion potential readers, I'll creep back to what I said at the beginning of the post. There are lots of variations on this "ponti-" business. Oh, yes. You thought you could only relate to the Pope by listening to what he has to say? Think again.

Although lots of these "ponti-" words are a little out of use these days, it seems that we love inventing and using them at one time or another. If you want to make something seem high-handed, you can "pontify" it. If you support the Pope in one way or another, then you can proudly call yourself a "pontifician". If, on the other hand, you like to "pontificate" regularly, you're a "pontificator". There are many more, but my favourite is your grand demeanour, or "pontificality". They abound our language's history, mixing religion and public opinion, and isn't it beautiful?

Having written all this, I've just thought of an alternate reason why "pontificate" might seem as pompous as it does. It sounds an awful lot like "ponce" which, sadly seems to bear no etymological relationship. I leave the choice between the two in your capable hands, dear readers, lest I pontify my narrative.



  1. Another awesome blog! I am determined to use this word in a spoken sentance by the end of the week, even if only to confuse the French guy I live with *evil laugh*.
    I got a tiny stab of adrenaline when you said there was no humility in the Vatican! That was quite amusing.

  2. Always a pleasure from you, dear friend. I wonder whether pompous is linked at all...the pope is pontificality pompous! You have lent another colour to the spectrum of language.

  3. You know, I did look briefly at "pompous". You know how you have the song "Pomp and Circumstance"? Well, it's from that "pomp", which is from the Latin "pompa", meaning "ceremonial march".

    Not related, but interesting. I like requests muchie.