American bird watchers enjoy seeing the bright scarlet plumage of the bird we call the cardinal (Cardinalis virginianus). The bird got its name because it reminded early explorers of the scarlet robes of the cardinals of the Roman Catholic church.
cardinal: One of the seventy ecclesiastical princes (six cardinal bishops, fifty cardinal priests, and fourteen cardinal deacons) who constitute the pope’s council, or the sacred college, and to whom the right of electing the pope has been restricted since the third Lateran council in 1173.
Originally, every priest permanently attached to a church was called a “cardinal.” The word came from Latin cardo, “a hinge.” The business of the church “hinged” on permanent personnel. One sense of cardinal still in use is “important.”
cardinal adjective: something on which something else hinges or depends, fundamental; chief, principal, of special importance.
We speak of
cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude (so called because all other virtues depend upon them)
cardinal numbers: one, two, three, four etc. (as opposed to the ordinal numbers first, second, third, fourth, etc.)
cardinal points of the compass: North, South, East, West
In time, the term cardinal came to refer to the “first” or most important priest attached to a church. Then, as the administrative reach of the papacy increased, the term came to be attached to clerics charged with advising the pope and helping him administer the work of the church. The college of cardinals, given canonical form by Pope Eugene III in 1150, has had the right to elect the pope since 1173.
The cardinals may have been wearing red robes earlier, but in 1294, Pope Boniface officially conferred red cassocks, stockings, gloves, and hats on them. Red had been the trademark color of a cardinal for at least two centuries before Columbus spied the New World and exploration began that would discover the pretty red bird.
In the U.S., the cardinal is a popular sports mascot. Universities that have it as their mascot include Ball State, Plattsburgh, and the University of Louisville. Even the University of Arkansas, famous for its Razorback mascot, derives its school colors of red and white from an association with the bird. Before the adoption of the razorback mascot, the university football team, organized in 1894, was called the Cardinals and the school colors were “cardinal red” and white. The story is that, after the triumphant 1909 season, the coach told the team that they’d played “like a wild band of razorback hogs.” The student body promptly voted for a mascot change, but the colors remained the same.