Saturday, January 17, 2009

One for All, Religious Persuasion Notwithstanding

For this week, a word in the spirit of the situation in which many CD-less, iPod-less motorists have doubtlessly found themselves: scanning radio stations and coming across music that sounds worthwhile enough until a close listening of the lyrics raises the possibility that the song may be Christian-themed.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Is it Christian?

Should that matter?

If it’s not Christian, what, exactly, is the relationship between the male singer and this “he” that he’s going on about?

Like that.
catholicon (ka-THAH-li-kahn) — a cure-all, a panacea, a supposedly universal remedy.
Like the scenario described above, this word has probably made those unfamiliar with it question whether it refers to something inherently religious in nature. After all, anyone familiar with the Catholic church would know that it makes liberal use of icons of all sorts — paintings, statues, stained glass art of varying degrees of quality and those candles you see at Mexican grocery stores. Why shouldn’t the phrase “Catholic icon” be contracted down to the handy-dandy portmanteau catholicon?

Here’s why not: catholicon has more in common with the “lower-case ‘c’ catholic than the proper noun Catholic, which has taken on a life of its own, as words tend to do. The common adjective catholic can just mean “universal,” which isn’t applicable to the religion Catholicism unless one’s concept of the universe is restricted to the South America, Central America, Arizona, Massachusetts, a few major European countries, some islands, and Burundi. (Seriously, this should not be anyone’s concept of the universe. There are migrating birds that have a broader understanding of the universe than this.), which introduced me to catholicon, traces the etymologies of all these words back to the Greek katholikos, meaning “general,” which in turn comes from the Greek kata, “according to” or “by,” and holou, “whole.” (Yes, the name of a religion can is the equivalent of “according to the lowest common denominator,” if you choose to look at it that way.) Going a bit further, the holou comes from the Indo-European root sol-, which also appears in such English words as solid, salute, save, salvo, and soldier, or so tells me anyway.

I can think of another reason why someone might think that catholicon has religious associations, but it’s more of a stretch and probably only exists in my head. The word sounds a lot like the name Catherine, which, as a result of the martyr St. Catherine, is a popular name for little Catholic girls. (Seriously, go to any of the places listed in the “Catholic universe” described above and marvel at the astounding number of women whose names are either Catherine or some variation on it.) Possibly as a result of the fact that I went to Catholic school and met a great many Catherines, I feel the name and the religion became inextricably linked.

In writing this entry, however, I decided to look into whether catholic and Catherine have any connection — mostly out of my curiosity about whether the name could be literally translated as “good for everyone” or “something general that everyone can do.” Because that would be amazing.

Interesting though Catherine’s history may be, it apparently doesn’t owe much at all to the old roots that give us catholic and catholicon, or at least not directly.

Name etymology website Behind the Name posits that Catherine and its variants come from a Greek name that can be represented with the Roman alphabet Aikaterine. (That initial vowel sound gets preserved in the Russian form, Ekaterina, the Online Etymology Dictionary points out.) Beyond Aikaterine, however, the history is debated. It could go back to an older Greek name, Hekaterine, which comes from the Greek word hekateros, which means “each of the two,” confusingly. Others say that Catherine goes back to the name Hecate, which is shared by a Greek goddess who eventually became associated with witches. (I think Buffy featured Willow spouted some wiccababble involving her name once or twice.) In any case, pretty far from Catholicism.

There are a few other theorized origins. Regardless, the arrival of Christianity caused the name to be associated with the Greek word katharos, meaning “pure.” And that happens to be the most widely accepted origin for the name of the Cathars, the Christian sect popular in the 12th and 13th centuries. Which is another fun religious association.

In any case, I think it’s funny that a name that could be translated as “pure” or “universal,” depending on which etymology you pay heed to, is anything but, what with its debated history and corrupted history and possible association with a witch goddess.

If only there was one answer that could make everybody happy. Ahem.

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