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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Megan:

I notice that you have used the word renaissance many times in your descriptions of other words but I think your readers may benefit from a study of this word itself.

They certainly may!  Most children, when studying European history in school, are told that renaissance means "rebirth", which is correct.  The Renaissance, which followed the medieval period, was marked by a "rebirth" of intellectualism and many discoveries in physics, biology, and other scientific disciplines, as well as a flowering of thought in philosophy and religion.  

Classical thought and arts were a strong influence during the Renaissance, which visited Italy first (in the 14th century), and spread through the rest of Europe thereafter.  Renaissance comes from French renaitre "to be born again".  The earliest example of the word in English comes from 1840 and refers to architecture of the period: "That heaviest and least graceful of all possible styles, the ‘renaissance’ as the French choose to term it."  It is clear, then, that the word was in use in French, with this meaning, before 1840.

From Reid Boyce:

Why are the Virgin Islands called "Virgin"?

The apotheosis of St. Ursula.  Click to learn more about the legend of this saint.One might assume that the islands' name, like that of the U.S. state of Virginia, was given for the "virgin queen", Elizabeth the I of England, but this is not the case.  

Instead, the islands were named in 1493 by Christopher Columbus.  He is said to have chosen this name because he discovered the islands on October 21, the feast day of St. Ursula, who supposedly made a pilgrimage to Rome in the 4th century with 11,000 virgin converts.  Interestingly, that 11,000 number is presumed to be erroneous and there are several explanations of the source of the error.  One claims that the number arose due to an error in the translation of Latin shorthand.  That shorthand was XI MV, and it was translated as "eleven million virgins" (or undecim millia virgines) when it should have been "eleven virgin martyrs" (or undecim martyres virgines).  Other explanations include that Ursula had a companion named Undecimillia or Ximillia.  Whatever the number of virgins, Ursula is associated with them and, hence, she is the origin of the name of the Virgin Islands.

St. Ursula was the inspiration for St. Angela de Merici to found, in 1535, the Ursuline order of nuns, who happened to teach Melanie in high school.


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