In a Word: So Many Cardinals

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.

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In a Word: Fermenting or Fomenting?

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.

Presidential candidate Joe Biden sent many people rushing to the dictionary on Monday when he accused the president of fomenting violence. Foment isn’t a very common word; is it the right one to use here? What does it mean? And is it anything like ferment?

Foment has long been used to mean “incite” or “stir up,” but it began its life in English in a more mundane way. Though some usage mavens recommend restricting the word ferment to the culinary sphere, it has long been used metaphorically to mean “agitate, cause unrest,” making it as valid and useful as foment in some political discourse.

These two near-synonyms can confuse even the best writers, but there are some key differences in how they should be used.

But first, a little word history:

Like many English culinary terms, ferment was adopted from French, but it goes back to the Latin fermentum, “leavening agent (such as yeast).” When something ferments, it changes organically: bread dough rises, bubbles rise to the top of a brewing ale. Though the word entered English only in the “leavening” sense in the late 14th century, the active change of fermentation opened it up to metaphorical meanings — “agitate, cause unrest” and “to develop organically” — during the English Civil War in the mid-17th century. Today both the literal and metaphorical uses are well-attributed.

You might call foment a physical therapy term — if the phrase physical therapy had been in use half a millennium ago when foment appeared. It too traces back to Latin, to fomentum “warm application, poultice.” When foment found its place in English in the late 14th century (again via French), it referred to the therapeutic use of heat — especially through hot liquids. For example, after a long, hard day, a worker might be advised to foment his sore muscles. But muscles aren’t the only thing that can get heated up, and by the early 1600s, foment also referred to heating up a crowd, that is, inciting or instigating them. Today, its early therapeutic sense is more or less obsolete.

Fermentum and fomentum — I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that ancient Romans confused these words as often as we confuse their Modern English equivalents. But it’s more difficult these days because the metaphorical meanings of ferment and foment can, at times, seem to apply equally to the same situation, and one word may seem more or less appropriate depending only on which side of an argument you fall on.

But there are a few guidelines that can help you find the right word in your own writing:

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In a Word: Let’s Clear the Heirloom

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.

If you’re from a relatively close-knit family, it’s likely you have some memento from an ancestor stowed away in a box, a chest, or a bank vault. We cherish these heirlooms as solid pieces of family history that survive through generations.

But have you ever wondered about that word heirloom?

It looks like a straightforward compound word — heir + loom — and, as it turns out, it is. The heir- part makes sense, because heirlooms are (generally) passed on to heirs, but what about the -loom? Were the original heirlooms actual looms passed down through generations?

Yes, they were, but it’s not what you think.

The heir- part of heirloom was, like most English words that begin with a silent H, adopted from French — specifically from what’s called Anglo-French, the dialect of Old French used in England during the Middle Ages, when French was the primary language of diplomacy. And because it comes from French, it can be traced back to Latin: Its root is heres “heir/heiress,” which is also the root of heredity.

The -loom in heirloom (or ayre lome in Middle English) comes from a shortening of Old English geloma, which was a generic word for a tool or utensil of any kind. Loom didn’t shift specifically to the cloth-weaving apparatus until around the early 15th century, about the same time that heirloom was solidifying its place in the language.

This loom, by the way, is not at all etymologically related to the verb to loom, whose origin is uncertain. In early uses, it described the up-and-down movement of ships on water, and it may have evolved from the same root as the word lame.

An heirloom, then, is historically any tool or utensil that is passed on to an heir. “Any tool or utensil” is a pretty broad category, so it’s easy to see how the word came to mean “any family keepsake.”

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