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Sunday: October 16, 2005


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Buzzmachine mentions “the elusive, hermitic, hermetic Jim Romenesko”. Despite the resemblance, ‘hermit/hermitic’ and ‘hermetic’ are unrelated. The latter comes from Hermes, god of thieves and also of locks and keys: it is a philosophical commonplace that the best doctor would also be the best poisoner, and the best poacher the best gamekeeper. ‘Hermit’ and its derivatives come from the Greek adjective éremos, ‘desolate, lonely, solitary’, or the noun eremía, ‘desert, wilderness’. Milton uses the earlier English form ‘eremite’ on the first page of Paradise Regain’d.

Though the words are etymologically unrelated, they do make a nice pair. I don’t recall ever saying anything nice about Jesse Jackson before, and don’t plan to do so again any time soon, but I still like his similar pun of a few years back, when he started calling reporters alligators “because they make the all(i)gations”. Those words are also unrelated: an ‘alligator’ is a ‘grabber’, and the -LIG- element is the same one found in ‘ligament’, ‘ligature’, ‘(tubal) ligation’, and for that matter ‘religion’.

What has religion to do with alligators and ligatures? The concept of ‘binding’. In classical Latin, religio was not a general term for things to do with the gods — those were res divinae — but something more particular, along the lines of a religious taboo. For instance, it seems to have been forbidden to urinate on the walls of temples, even if they were nondescript back walls facing alleys. To judge from an obscure passage of Persius’ Satires (1.113), the Romans painted snakes on such walls so that even children and illiterates would know that they should go elsewhere. In his Satires (1.130), Juvenal mentions an Egyptian, a ruler of Arabs (arabarches), cuius ad effigiem non tantum meiere fas est, “at whose statue one is allowed not only to piss”. Need I spell out what else one might do there? The commentators note that pissing on an Emperor’s statue was treason.

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