O great mystery

One of the choirs I’m singing in is rehearsing the motet O magnum mysterium by Tomas Luis da Victoria.

The text is:

O magnum mysterium,
et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,
iacentem in praesepio!
Beata Virgo, cujus viscera
meruerunt portare
Dominum Iesum Christum.

One more-or-less standard English translation is:

O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear
the Lord, Jesus Christ.

Every time I’ve sung it, I’ve been struck by how many of the Latin words have engendered English words. English is officially classified as a Germanic language, but many of its advanced words are derived from Latin. In fact, two of the words are Greek and two are Hebrew through Greek. Some words came into English via French rather than directly from Latin.

Here are the Latin words again, with some of the English words they have engendered (mainly from Wikipedia). There are definitely more, given the English processes of prefixing and suffixing, and some very rare words:

O – O, oh

magnum (magnus/magna/magnum, great, large) – magnanimity, magnanimous, magnate, magnificent, magnify, magnitude, magnum

mysterium (μυστήριον, mystḗrion, mystery, sacrament) – mystery, mysterious, mystify, mystic(al), mysticism, mystique

et – none, but the ampersand & is a stylised abbreviation of this word.

admirabile (ad + mirus, wonder, amazement) – admire, admirable, admiration, marvel, marvelous, miracle, miraculous, mirage, Miranda, mirror

sacramentum (sacer/sacra/sacrum, sacred, holy) – consecrate, desecrate, sacrament, sacred, sacrosanct

ut – none, but ‘that’ is a direct equivalent

animalia (which is derived from anima breath, life, spirit) – animal/animalia, anima/animus, animate, animation, animator, animatronic, animadvert, animism, animist

viderent (videre/video/visus, to see) – advise, clairvoyant, envisage, envision, envy, evidence, improvise, interview, invidious, preview, provide, proviso, prudent, purvey, purview, review, revise, supervise, survey, videlicet, video, view, vis-à-vis, visa, visage, visible, vision, visit, visor, vista, visual, voilà, voyeur

Dominum (dominus, master, from domus, house) – belladonna, condominium, damedamsel, danger, demesne, demoiselle, domain, dominant, domineer, dominion, domino, duenna, dungeon, madam, mademoiselle, madonna, predominant

natum (nascere/nāsci/natus, to be born) – adnate, agnaticcognate, innate,  nada, naïve, nascent, natal, nation, native, nature, née, pregnant, renaissance

iacentem (iacere/iaceo/iacitus, to be thrown) – adjacent, ease/easy, joist

in – in

praesepio (prae– + sepio). Latin prae– gives English pre- and all the words using that prefix (there’s one!). Saepire/saepio/saeptum, to surroundenclosefence in; envelop, wrap. The only related English word is transept. 

Beata (beare/beo/beatum, to bless) – beatify

Virgo (virgō/virginis, maiden) – virgin

cuius – English whose is distantly related via Proto-Indo-European  *kʷis. Compare Latin quis, quem, cuius and English who, whom, whose

viscera (viscus/visceris, internal organ) – eviscerate, visceral.

meruerunt (merērī/mereo/meritus, to earn) – merit

portare (portare/porto/portatum, to carry) – comportment, deport, export, import, port, portable, portage, portal, porter, portfolio, purport, rapport, report, support, transport

Dominum – see above

Iesum (Hebrew ישוע‎ Yehoshua, ישוע‎ Yeshua, Greek Ἰησοῦς Iesous, Latin Iesus Jesus, Jesuit

Christum (Greek Χριστός Christos, Latin Christus) – Christ, Christian, Christianity, Christmas

Alleluia! (Hebrew הללו יה, Hallelujah, Greek ἀλληλούϊα)

These last three have been taken almost intact into other languages. I’m not aware of any language which translates them rather than transliterating them.  For example, in Korean, they are 예수 크리스토스 (ye-su keu-ri-seu-to) and 할렐루야 (hal-le-lu-ya).

Some of the derivations aren’t immediately obvious. I checked a few, and they are there.


One thought on “O great mystery

  1. Pingback: What big mystery | Never Pure and Rarely Simple

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