In a Word: So Many Cardinals

We all have different experiences with the word ‘cardinal’ — in religion, in math, in ornithology — and they all stem from the same word root. Here’s how they connect.

Cardinals sitting together on a fence

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Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

The word cardinal covers a lot of ground in the English language. We’ve got the cardinal directions, cardinal numbers, the cardinals of the Catholic church, cardinal sins and cardinal virtues, and of course the state bird of Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia — not to mention my alma mater’s mascot. Cardinal might be the only word to have found a comfortable home in the lexicon of navigation, mathematics, liturgy, and ornithology. But each of these types of cardinal stems etymologically from a common seed of a word.

Cardo was the Latin word for “hinge” — or more broadly, “a pivot or axis on which something turns.” As ancient discussions turned to the cosmological, cardo took on a broader meaning: “the axis points on which the universe rotates around the Earth,” namely, the Earth’s poles. North and south, then, become the first two cardinal directions (from the adjective cardinalis, “serving as a pivot or hinge”), and the other two, east and west, simply fall at right angles to them.

In the fourth century A.D., that hinge took a metaphorical bent, and we start finding mention in Catholic religious texts of the virtutes cardinales, the cardinal virtues (temperance, prudence, justice, and fortitude). Not only do the four cardinal virtues serve as one’s compass for a moral life, but all other moral virtues hinge on these four. The late sixth century saw the emergence of their opposite, the cardinal sins — now more commonly known as the seven deadly sins.

If cardo means “pivot,” one translation of the adjective cardinalis is “pivotal” — first physically and then, as language evolved, metaphorically. Cardinalis came to mean “essential,” and you can’t get more essential to mathematics than the cardinal numbers (in Medieval Latin, cardinalis numeri), a concept that started appearing in texts in the sixth century. Cardinal numbers are the most basic numbers — one, two, three, and so on (there is some debate about whether zero should be included) — as opposed to ordinal numbers — first, second, third, etc. — which place things in order.

Cardinalis also shifted from “essential” to “chief, principal,” and it’s from this meaning that the Catholic church, using Medieval Latin, named certain “ecclesiastical princes” cardinals. These bishops (episcopi cardinales), priests (presbyteri cardinales), and deacons (diaconi cardinales) were senior church leaders and advisors to the Pope, and the election of a new Pope hinged on them. (Today, it’s very rare for someone to be named a cardinal who isn’t an ordained bishop.)

In French, cardinalis in this ecclesiastical sense became cardinal, and it’s from that source that the word was borrowed into English in the early 12th century — but the story of cardinal doesn’t end there.

When performing liturgical rites, Catholic cardinals commonly wear red, signifying the blood of Christ. The specific color of their frocks was so recognizable — and apparently so consistent — that that shade of red was often referred to as cardinal red. American colonists in the 18th century found a red, crested, North American songbird that seemed clothed in that color. The association was so strong that they named the bird the cardinal.

Featured image: Rizwan Mian / Shutterstock

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