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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Brailey Stetson:

I was wondering if the words cult and occult are related.

We are asked this question about three times a year so it's about time we answered it.  And the answer is "no". Cult comes from the Latin cultus meaning "worship" and is related to cultivateOccult comes from the Latin occultus meaning "hidden" and is related to occluded.  The reasons for assuming a connection lie in very recent developments in the meanings of the words cult and occult.  Within the last forty years, cult  has become a derogatory term for any religion one wishes to disparage and occult is commonly used to mean such things as magic, astrology and fortune-telling.  This use of occult is a little old-fashioned these days, though, having been superseded in common use by pagan and metaphysical.

From Bradley Sterling:

I was wondering what the word inventory has to do with invent.

They both come from the Latin verb invenire "to find". Originally, an inventor was one who discovered, rather than created, something new.  Similarly, by taking an inventory of all the old boxes in the basement, we discover what treasures they contain.

This original use of invention is now used only as a theological term. The Invention of the Cross is the name given to the supposed discovery of the cross upon which Jesus Christ had been executed.  This historical artifact was unearthed by an early, influential and [dare we say it?] ground-breaking archeologist called Helena. A Roman Empress, she was the mother of the Emperor Constantine and was later made Saint Helena for her endeavors. Reading between the lines of a pious ancient account (translated at Dublin, 1686), this may not have been quite so miraculous as it might at first appear.

Click to learn more about St. HelenaHelena, visiting the Holy Land for the first time with her son, the emperor, was determined to find the "true cross".  Accordingly, she rounded up 2,000 assorted wise men and scribes, demanding that they tell her its whereabouts "lest ye dye a bad Death deservedly by my hand".  The wise men, wisely, told her of a young Jew named Judas who knew all about this cross thing.  They then girded their loins and remembered urgent appointments elsewhere.  Judas, when first asked, replied something like "A cross? At Golgotha?  Sorry, never heard of it." Obviously, the fellow had trouble with recall so, improvising a radical memory-improvement therapy, Empress (and soon to be Saint) Helena commanded

...that they should cast him into a dry Pit, and keep him for the space of seven days, without giving him any Meat.

Then after seven days Judas cried out with a loud voice, and said, Raise me out of this pit, and I will shew you the place where the Cross of Christ is.

Then the Empress commanded, and they took him out, and he went to the very place, although he was not well assured that it was there.

Judas need not have been so apprehensive. After digging down only 20 cubits they "miraculously" found a set of three crosses complete with the nails used at the crucifixion. It should be noted that Golgotha was Jerusalem's city dump and 20 cubits [that's 30 feet!] of digging should have turned up any amount of old lumber and nails.

Should anyone wish to light a candle for poor old Judas, the feast of the Invention of the Cross is celebrated on May 3rd.

From Bill Simpson:

What is the origin of Jesus Christ as swear word?

The use of Jesus Christ! is quite old but we can't be sure exactly when it began.  It cannot have predated Middle English as, in Old English, haelend ("savior") was used rather than the name Jesus Christ. Shakespeare has several of his characters say Jesu! but earlier authors have the longer, and presumably original, oath by Jesus! This old oath now persists only s in "stage Irish" where it has become bejaysus.

James Joyce, with a great ear for vernacular language, put the words "Jesus wept, and no wonder, by Christ" into the mouth of one of the characters of his novel UlyssesJesus wept!  We've all heard people say the words, but why?  Why should anyone, when in distressing circumstances, offer a sudden observation regarding the lachrymal habits of their savior? In brief, it's because John 11:35 ("Jesus wept.") is the shortest verse in the Bible.

America seems to have been particularly fond of variants on this theme. First Jesus was shortened to gee or jeezeGee was further elaborated upon to give gee-whillickers, geewhillickins and gee-whizz.  The ornate forms Jesus H. Christ!  and holy jumping Jesus Christ! were first noticed in 1924.

From Kenneth Swift, Jr.:

Where does the phrase fiddle sticks come from? Why and how?

The word fiddle has been used in exclamations since about 1600.  It has been used alone, as fiddle-de-dee and as fiddle sticks.  Unlike modern violin bows which may cost many hundreds of dollars, a fiddle stick was once emblematic of any object of negligible worth.  In the 17th century, one might not care a fiddle stick or even not care a fiddle stick's end.

Its popularity as an exclamation may, like fudge and flip, derive from the mere fact that it begins with F.


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Last Updated 06/17/02 01:13 PM