The semen is mighty

One of the choirs I sing in is rehearsing Monteverdi’s Beatus vir qui timet domini (Blessed is the man who fears the Lord) (Psalm 112). Among other things (verse 2):

Potens in terra erit semen eius 

His – um – semen will be mighty in the earth

Except that Latin semen has more senses than in English, including seed (of plants), child, descendant, cause and essence (compare the seed of an idea or the seeds of doubt). Of the 55 translations on Bible Gateway:

descendents 26 descendants [seed] 1
seed 12
children 9
offspring 5
[spiritual] offspring 1
zera 1

Zera is the Hebrew equivalent, and is used by the Orthodox Jewish Bible, “an English language version that applies Yiddish and Hasidic cultural expressions to the Messianic Bible”. That verse reads, in full, “His zera shall be gibbor ba’aretz; ; the dor (generation) of the Yesharim (upright ones) shall be blessed”. If you know that many Hebrew/Yiddish/Hasidic words (I don’t), you may as well read it in Hebrew anyway (I don’t). Various Hebrew dictionaries give a similar range of definitions as the Latin.

In English, the meanings of semen, seed and descendants/children/offspring have diverged. You can’t show a photo of your children and grand-children and say “These are my semen” or “These are my seed”. You probably can’t even say “These are my descendants/children/offspring”.

(I am reminded of the book/tv series Game of Thrones. In a quasi-mediaeval fantasy world, the king’s chancellor is investigating an important secret. His last message before he is killed is “The seed is strong”.)

The other places we find semen in English are seminars and seminaries, were seeds are (meant to be) sown, or at least scattered.

Not surprisingly, semen is found in a number of European, mostly Latinate, languages with either or both the seed or reproductive meanings, and as a noun and/or verb. 

In other, unrelated languages, it has different meanings which might prove unfortunate if mixed up, including Indonesian, in which it also means cement, Maltese butter (from Arabic samn) and Mauritian and Seychellois Creole road, street (from French chemim), but those are all loan words.

See also the Russian speed skater Семён/Semion/Semen/Semyon Elistratov, who I mentioned in this post, whose name is the perfectly good Russian equivalent of Simon. 


What big mystery

Four years ago I posted about the Latin text O magnum mysterium, and explored the links between the words in it and modern-day English words. Given that English is not a Latinate language, it is perhaps surprising that all but two of the Latin words have related words in English. Or perhaps not, because Latin was the primary language of the Christian church in England for at least approximately 950 years. 

One of the choirs I sing in recently sang the anthem to this text by Francis Poulenc. On the first page of the printed score was a French translation. French is a Latinate language, and it was interesting to see the similarities and differences between the Latin and French texts. Some words are very similar, some have been changed almost beyond recognition and some have been substituted for other words.

The Latin text is:
O magnum mysterium, et admirabile sacramentum, ut animalia viderent Dominum natum, iacentem in praesepio!
O beata virgo, cuius viscera meruerunt portare Dominum Iesum Christum.

The French text is:

Quel grand mystère et admirable sacrement, que des animaux aient pu voir, couché dans une crèche, le Seigneur vient de naître!
Bienheureuse Vierge dont les entrailles ont mérité de porter le Christ – Seigneur.

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God is terrible

This idea is scattered throughout the bible, if not in exactly that form. I probably knew it first and certainly know it most familiarly through Ralph Vaughan Williams’ anthem on Psalm 47, O clap your hands.

O clap your hands, all ye people; shout unto God with the voice of triumph.
For the Lord most high is terrible; he is a great King over all the earth.

English has a number of words derived from Latin terror (noun), terrēre, terrificāre (verbs) and terribilis (adjective), including terror, terrorism/t, terrify, terrorise, terrible, terrifying and terrific. Terrific is now positive (though I remember a primary school teacher telling us that it should only be used in contexts of terror), terrifying is negative and terrible sits uncomfortably between the two.

As is usual with biblical words like this, there are many translations. In the 54 English versions on Bible Gateway:

awesome 18 awesome beyond words 1 awesome and deserves our great respect 1
awe-inspiring 3 

to be feared 9 to be feared [and worshiped with awe-inspired reverence and obedience] 1 fearsome 1 fearedful (to be feared/to be revered) 1 fearful 1 

terrible 10 
excites terror, awe, and dread 1

wonderful 3 wonderful [awesome] 1

stunning 1 

We must fear the Lord 1 We must fear Yahweh, Elyon 1

most of which have other problems, especially these days awesome. If “Everything is awesome” then there’s nothing special about God. At least no translations use awful (see this post, towards the end) (or dreadful).

(Another choral setting of the same psalm, by John Rutter, uses to be feared.)

Lying behind all of these is the Hebrew word נוֹרָא (nora, Modern Israeli Hebrew pronunciation noˈʁa). I will let an actual Hebrew speaker pronounce it and explain. So, awesome or awe-inspiring, or terrible or awful, even in Hebrew.

My problem with all of these is that if God is terrible, to be feared or even awesome, then our response will be terror, fear or awe, but will not and cannot possibly be love, and certainly not with our whole heart, mind, soul and strength.

It is noticeable that most of the verses describing God as terrible (in whatever words) are in the Old Testament (the one exception being the Old Testament-focused Hebrews). Elsewhere in the New Testament, we get “God is love” (not “God is loveable”!).

(I possibly have more to say about this, but would be venturing too far into theology for my comfort.)

A good word

While I was watching the funeral of a friend online it occurred to me that benediction and eulogy have basically the same meaning (a good word in Latin and Greek respectively). It’s just that we usually give the first to people who are alive and the second to people who aren’t.

It’s also St Benedict’s day today. Not that one. See also.

An ingenius genious

I have seen the spelling


enough times to notice it. It seems to be used either by mistake or sarcastically in response to something someone else has posted. It’s not a variant spelling; it’s plain wrong, which varius other people on the internet have pointed out. But inquiring linguistic minds want to know why. 

ius is a vary rare English suffix. In fact, it is arguable whether it is an English suffix. lists 13 words ending with –ius, of which genius, radius and trapezius are the most common. All of them come directly from Latin, and some would only be found in ancient Roman contexts, for example denarius. All of them are nouns (as far as I can tell), but –ius is not a productive noun suffix. We can’t create new English words with it, unless we are trying to evoke an ancient Roman mood.
ious is a common English suffix. lists 276 words, including various. Most of them come directly or indirectly from Latin, but there is no restriction on the contexts in which they can be used. All of them are adjectives (as far as I can tell), and –ious is a moderately productive adjective suffix. Some unknown person in the 19th century coined bodacious and Roald Dahl coined vermicious knid.

The relevant Latin adjectives had the forms -ius and -iosus, seemingly interchangeably, but the path from Latin to English is obscure because online sources don’t give examples from every step through Old French, Anglo-French and Middle English. The modern French equivalents are génie (compare Arabic jinn and English genie) and divers (compare diverse), which doesn’t help, but see furieux/furieuse

In You are a genius, genius is undoubtedly a noun. In That is a genius comment, it is still a noun but looks, sounds and feels more like an adjective (indeed, some dictionaries define attributive uses of nouns as adjectives). If any change of spelling ever happens, it will be that the second use becomes genious and the word becomes a genuine adjective. But not if word processor programs can help it – Pages for Mac just changed genious to genius and is red-underlining it now I’ve changed it back. Genius as a head noun is unlikely to change spelling, and all those –ious adjectives are simply never going to become –ius

Complicating all this is ingenious, which is undoubtedly an adjective but which is more distantly related, coming from genus and not genius (though those two words are related further back). So some geniuses are born and others are made.    

sun/Sun/son/Son of righteousness

My wife and I spent two nights away at a beach holiday town. This morning (Easter Day) we attended a dawn service in a park overlooking the beach. During the service, the sun rose, but the effect was diluted slightly by some small clouds on the eastern horizon. I couldn’t take any photos because I was meant to be concentrating on the service.

Probably inevitably, I got thinking about the coincidence of sun and son in English, especially in close conjunction with rising or risen. (See also sun/Sun/son/Son of righteousness.) These two words are similar in the major Germanic languages, but English seems to be the only one in which the two words are homophones: compare German Sonne and Sohn, Dutch zon and zoon, Danish sol and søn, Norwegian sol and sønn and Swedish Sol and son (Google Translate). Further, the two words have been similar for as long as written sources are available and have been reconstructed in proto-Indo-European as *séh₂wl̥ ~ *sh₂wéns and *suHnús. Are they related even further back? Intriguingly, relates son to a verb meaning “to give birth”, probably in a passive form of “having been given birth”. Unfortunately, it does not include an ultimate meaning for sun, but the relationship with “to give birth” is obvious. The answer may be in some specialised source of PIE etymology. I’ll have to leave it there, though.  

Compare Latin sol and filius, which is related to a verb meaning to suck, and the two words in any other language you know, in my case Korean 태양 (tae-yang) and 아들 (a-deul). 

Note also the Christian Church in England’s use of the Germanic pagan word Ēostre. (See my post from last year and the year before.)


I love long words, but I don’t set out to use them in real life. For some reason, I find 20-letter words more satisfying than 19- or 21-letter words, or any other length. I started collecting them but the internet has made it less fun than randomly encountering them (search and I’m sure you’ll find). Recently I randomly encountered the word fundamentalistically. 

English words can gain prefixes and/or suffixes, but the latter are more likely than the former. Fundamentalistically is fundament (N) + al (adj) + ist (N) + ic (adj) + al (adj) + ly (adv). It is questionable whether fundamentalistical is a ‘real word’ and, if so, means anything different from fundamentalistic. Google shows 54 results for fundamentalistical, mostly on websites which I wouldn’t willingly read. Word for Mac doesn’t like fundamentalistically, autocorrecting it to fundamentalistic ally, then red-underlining it when I change it back, or fundamentalistical.

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Yesterday, a colleague advised us that it was International Chocolate Cake Day. Another colleague shared an image of a chocolate cake with the text: 

I had this delicious omlette this morning. I seasoned the eggs with sugar, oil and chocolate, and threw in a little flour for texture. 

Ha ha.

A third colleague pointed out that there should be an e after the m

Inquiring linguistic minds want to know why omelette is right and omlette is wrong. 

Courtesy of the Online Etymology Dictionary, the story begins with Latin lamina (plate, layer) (with a variety of modern meanings) and lamella (small plate, layer) (also with a variety of modern meanings) and progresses through French la lemelle > l’alemelle > alemele > alemette (which is a double diminutive) > omelette to arrive in English. American English prefers omelet. Omlette and omlet exist but are rare, and at this stage are probably still mistakes rather than genuine alternatives. Pages for Mac autocorrects omlette and omlet to omelette and omelet. So omelette has the first e because Latin lamella had/has one.

For me, omelette is solidly two syllables, but gives the two- and three- syllable pronunciations.

Sing Noël! Sing Gloria!

It was probably inevitable that a married couple of songwriters named Noël and Gloria would write a Christmas song. Noël Regney and Gloria Shayne wrote Do you hear what I hear? (first recording, by the Harry Simeone Chorale) in October 1962. 

Or maybe not, because his name was actually Léon, and he was hesitant to write a Christmas song due to the commercialisation of Christmas. Noël wrote the words, influenced by the then-current Cuban Missile Crisis and Gloria the music.

Gloria came into English straight from Latin, and also via Old French glorie to become Middle English glory. I couldn’t figure out what the origin of noël (or noel) might be, and would not have guessed that it comes from Latin diēs nātālis day of birth (compare nativity). French did drastic things to Latin (note also that glorie became gloire), but that one is a stretch. Noël is a relatively late arrival into English, dating from 1805-1815. The First Nowell was first published in 1823.

Ceiling wax

One song I remember from my childhood is Puff, the magic dragon, sung by Peter, Paul and Mary and written by Peter Yarrow and Leonard Lipton. For some time I wondered what

ceiling wax

is. I don’t know how I found out that it is, in fact

sealing wax.

I obviously knew about ceilings before I knew about sealings.

Ceiling is a strange word. It ends with -ing, but it’s not related to a verb; we don’t usually ceil ceilings like we build buildings. (Someone has flippantly suggested that we should call them builts.) In fact we do, or buildingers do, whether they call it that or not. records the verb ceil, meaning

1. to overlay (the ceiling of a building or room) with wood, plaster, etc.
2. to provide with a ceiling 

dating from 1400–50, from late Middle English celen to cover, to panel, followed by a rather vague < ? 

Seal is ultimately from Latin signum and is related to sign. The animal seal is from Old English with cognates in Old Norse and Old High German. There is a story that one holder of the British government office of Lord Privy Seal objected to being addressed as such because he wasn’t a lord, a privy or a seal.  

While I was researching for this post, I found a blog called of ceiling wax, which is about “reading YA, graphic novels and the spaces in between”. Its not-immediately-named author quotes Lewis Carroll’s The walrus and the carpenter (text, Wikipedia), which I’m not as familiar with and didn’t think of. She/he also originally mistook this for ceiling wax.

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax–
Of cabbages–and kings–
And why the sea is boiling hot–
And whether pigs have wings.” 

Some of Carroll’s poems are direct parodies of the poems Alice Liddell would have been familiar with, but this seems to be totally original. 

PS 3 Oct: information about the poems Carroll parodied.