Saints and Sanctity

By Mark Nichol

The Latin adjective sanctus, meaning “consecrated” or “holy,” is the root of a family of words that sometimes but not always have a religious context. Definitions of those words follow.

Saint (from the Anglo-French word seint) originally was simply an adjective applied to the name of a person who had been canonized, or officially designated as holy, but it soon became a noun and eventually a verb as well, though that latter usage is rare. By extension, it informally describes a person of remarkable patience or virtue.

Saint, in reference to a person or as part of a place name, is spelled out in formal contexts, but occasionally it is abbreviated to St. (In place names, the Spanish masculine and feminine equivalents, San and Santa, respectively, are never abbreviated.) As a surname, it is spelled out or abbreviated according to personal preference (in French usage, it is spelled out and hyphenated to the following word); consult a biographical dictionary for accuracy.

Sanctity is the quality of holiness; sanctimony and sanctitude are less common synonyms, though the former is often seen in its adjectival form, sanctimonious, to refer pejoratively to someone who is falsely pious. (The positive sense is obsolete.) To sanctify is to make holy. A sanctum is a holy place; the Latin phrase sanctum sanctorum, meaning “holy of holies,” has been borrowed directly into English, and in secular contexts, “inner sanctum” refers to a private place of retreat.

Sanctuary originally referred to a building designated for worship (it also applied to a sacred relic or any other holy object), and because some churches served as refuges where fugitives were generally immune from arrest, the word was applied outside of religious contexts to a place of protection or safety, including one set aside as wildlife refuge.

The adjective sacrosanct means “especially sacred” and, by extension, applies to any belief adhered to with great devotion. (A follow-up post will discuss sacred and related words.) To sanction is to make sacred or to confirm or decree; the word also applies, as a noun, to an act of doing so or the confirmation or decree itself. As with other related terms, it also has a secular connotation, and in this sense is a near contronym (also known as a contranym or autoantonym): Sanction means approval or permission, but it also applies to punitive but nonviolent measures one or more nations take to compel another nation to conform to international law. (The word also pertains to something that prompts action or judgment in response to a question of morality.)

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5 Responses to “Saints and Sanctity”

  • Lynn

    @venqax: I believe the Orthodox churches may, yes. But it’s appropriate because according to Scripture ALL Christians are saints. A “recognition of sainthood” occurs whenever someone is born again, and the term applies equally to all who are. In the Bible itself, “saint” is synonymous with “Christian,” so it’s a broader definition than is given in the article.

  • venqax

    @Lynn: Your addendum is applicable to the common Protestant tradition as well, where figures who are held as particularly important in early Christianity are referred to as saints– St. Mark, St, Matthew, St. Luke, etc.– even though Protestantism, in general, has no institution of canonization or formal recognition of sainthood like the RCC does.

  • venqax

    I think it was clear from the context of the article that the option of using the abbreviation St. in a proper name only applies when it is used as a pre-nominal title, e.g. St. John, not when Saint is itself the name in its entirety. Nor would it apply if someone were being referred to as “The” Saint. One would not write, “The Dr.” or the “The Gen.” either, as a title or in a sentence (“He went to medical school to become a Dr.” would not be correct, obviously.)

    If nothing were allowed for allusions or contextual implication, posts might run on interminably, meandering off into tangents and byways that have nothing to do with the subject. Imagine such a thing.

  • Dale A. Wood

    “As a surname, [Saint] is spelled out or abbreviated according to personal preference…”
    This is not completely accurate. There are people like Eva Marie Saint for whom “Saint” is the surname, and that is NEVER abbreviated. For something besides simple rudeness, “Eva Marie St.” could be read as “Eva Marie Street”.
    There was also a well-known character in films and TV named “The Saint”, and his name is NEVER abbreviated either. On TV, he was played by Roger Moore a long time before he became “Sir Roger Moore”. Then later on, he became Agent 007, and some people have told me that they could never imagine The Saint as 007 !
    I actually liked Moore very much as Agent 007.

  • Lynn

    The definition of “saint” conforms to the meaning given by (and popularized by) the Roman Catholic church, but I wanted to also offer the biblical meaning for those who may not be familiar with it. Occurring almost 100 times in the New King James translation, “saint” refers to everyone who trusts in God. Many of the New Testament letters are written to the “saints” living in various areas.

    In the Bible, one doesn’t become a “saint” by man’s vote after death, but only by repenting and trusting in Christ while alive. ANYone can become a saint–consecrated, sanctified, declared holy by God.

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