Sacred Words

By Mark Nichol

The words featured in this post have a word in common: the Latin adjective sacer, meaning “holy.”

The word’s direct descendant is sacred. Other terms include sacrament, which describes a religious observance or rite, and sacerdotal, which refers to things that pertain to a priest or the priesthood. A sacristy is a room where sacred objects are kept and where priests dress for services; a sacristan is a person in charge of the room and its contents. (Sexton, by way of the Anglo-French segrestein, is derived from the same Latin precursor as sacristan but refers more broadly to a church caretaker.)

Sacrilege originally referred to stealing something sacred but later came to refer as well to any seriously irreverent act, although it is sometimes used to facetiously allude to something that merely mocks convention or tradition; the adjectival form is sacrilegious (which, despite looking and sounding similar to religious, is unrelated to that word).

Sacrifice, from the Latin words sacra (“holy rites”) and facere (“perform”), originally meant just that but later referred to killing someone or something as an offering to a deity. In use as both a noun and a verb, it also applies in nonreligious contexts to destroying something or giving it up. In baseball, a sacrifice fly or hit occurs when a batter accidentally or deliberately hits the ball and is called or forced out but by doing so enables a teammate already on base to advance.

To consecrate is to devote, or make holy; an act of doing so is consecration. To desecrate is to damage or destroy something sacred; desecration is such an act. To execrate, by contrast, is to curse, and the noun is execration. The adjective execrable originally meant “fit to be cursed,” but the modern sense is of something detestable or wretched. The rare term obsecration means “beseech” or “implore” (and is unrelated to the noun obsequy, meaning “funeral rites,” and the adjective obsequious, which means “overly compliant”).

The anatomical term sacrum and its adjectival form sacral, both referring to the bone at the base of the spine, originate from the Latin term os sacrum (“sacred bone”). Competing theories for the significance of the term are that the part of the body in which it is located was used in sacrifices and that because the Greek term from which os sacrum is derived is hieron osteon, and hieron also means “strong,” the meaning is “strong bone.” (In anthropology, the adjectival form means “pertaining to religious rites.”)

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3 Responses to “Sacred Words”

  • Dale A. Wood

    I. Are any of these words related to “sanctuary”?
    II. Some writers might have mislead me a long time ago. They implied that a “sexton” was a gravedigger, or a little more generally, the man who took care of the cemetery. There was something about the sexton’s mowing the grass in the cemetery, and digging graves whenever necessary.
    III, Is there any connection between these words: Sexton, Saxon, sextant, and Pope Sixtus the sixth? (He was the last one in that line, so far.) Arthur C. Clarke wrote a novel, “3001” in which a supporting character is Pope John XXIV. We have also had, recently, Pope Benedict XVI, so the large numbers are more of a rule than an exception.
    Pope John XXIII died in 1963, and he had been a very popular one.
    D.A.W.

  • venqax

    Yes, sanctuary, meaning holy or sacred place, comes from the same root.
    Sexton is a doublet with sacristan. The latter was the keeper of church buildings and property, the former originally applied to someone in charge of a church’s religious or sacred objects more specifically. It later came to mean more of what today would be called a custodian or building superintendent of a church: someone in charge of general upkeep, caring for religious and mundane objects, bell-ringing, and sometimes gravedigging since graveyards were often part of the churchyard.
    Saxon is unrelated. It comes from a PIE root via Germanic with meaning akin to “blade” or “sword” and by extension someone who wields one. *Sahsam is a reconstructed Proto-Germanic word for knife.
    The name Sixtus is also unrelated. It is another form of Sextus which merely means “sixth”. Likewise sextant which gets its name from the fact that its arc was equal to 60 degrees, one-sixth of a circle.

  • Dale A. Wood

    “Sixtus” is a Roman birth-order name: the sixth son in a family, just like Octavius was supposedly the eighth.
    I guess that “Quinten” or “Quentin” was the fifth, and the different spellings come from Latin, Spanish, Italian, and so forth.
    In the Bible, one of the great Patriarchs of the Old Testament supposedly had twelve sons, including Joseph. The youngest of these 12 was “Benjamin”, which means “youngest son”. (How did they know that there wouldn’t be 13?)
    The story of the 12 sons is the source of the story of the 12 tribes of Israel, of which 9 1/2 supposedly vanished to points unknown. Then in the Book of Mormon, it says that the people of the 9 1/2 tribes went (somehow) to America and became the American Indians.
    D.A.W.

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