Verbum -> Parole due to religious scruples?
September 8, 2009 9:43 AM   Subscribe

I looked up the etymology of parole in An etymological dictionary of the Romance languages, and was intrigued by this: "It took the place of the L. verbum which, from religious scruples, was sparingly used" (emphasis mine). What "religious scruples" are they alluding to? No elaboration is given in that entry. I realize that verbum means "word", and shares a stem with lots of other meanings, but I would love to know if anyone knows more.
posted by everichon to Society & Culture (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I think that it is possible that some wished to reserve verba for the Word of God, rather than words in general. Unfortunately, I do not even know how to begin checking whether this is true.
posted by James Scott-Brown at 9:50 AM on September 8, 2009

John 1:1?
posted by Sys Rq at 9:51 AM on September 8, 2009

I suspect that James Scott-Brown has the right idea. In particular...

In principio erat Verbum et Verbum erat apud Deum et Deus erat Verbum.

Verbum is the "word" in the standard Latin version of John 1:1 — in English, "In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God." Given the commandment against taking God's name in vain, and the general tendency for sacred words to become taboo, it's not surprising that people avoided it in secular contexts.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:51 AM on September 8, 2009

Also Dei Verbum in Wilipedia.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 9:52 AM on September 8, 2009

Sorry, I didn't mean Wilipedia. Oh dear. I mean Wikipedia of course.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 9:54 AM on September 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

The whole "In principio erat Verbum" thing was my first thought, but I dismissed it, thinking, "Naw, they wouldn't simply dispose of such a useful noun simply because it now signifies the numinous".

Seeing these responses, though, it seems more plausible. I was hoping for some cool early-Medieval Paul Harvey story.
posted by everichon at 9:58 AM on September 8, 2009

Bear in mind that the "religious scruples" are probably only a small part of the story, if they're even relevant. Lots and lots of Latin words got replaced by dialectal or slang equivalents (as happens in every language over the centuries); equus, for example, was replaced by caballus, and there was no religious motivation there. There are a lot of Just-So Stories about language history.
posted by languagehat at 11:40 AM on September 8, 2009 [3 favorites]

Erasmus famously caused outrage when, in his edition of the Vulgate, he translated John 1:1 as 'in principio erat sermo' ('in the beginning was the speech') instead of the usual 'in principio erat verbum' ('in the beginning was the word'). Maybe 'parola', like 'sermo', was associated with dialogue or conversation, and was therefore felt to be different from 'verbum'. But this is just a guess.

I suspect that the Diez/Donkin dictionary, published in 1864, may be rather fanciful in some of its etymologies. On the same page I notice 'parrocchetto' (parrot, parakeet) is said to be derived from 'parochus' (priest), 'these birds being chiefly kept by ecclesiastics'. The old Oxford English Dictionary, under 'parakeet', regarded this as doubtful, and the online OED doesn't mention it at all.
posted by verstegan at 12:03 PM on September 8, 2009

Not solid at all. In the first place, as I said, there are a lot of Just-So Stories about language history, and this is one of them, barring actual evidence that people stopped using verba for religious reasons, which as far as I know doesn't exist. In the second place, Metzger was a Biblical scholar, not a linguist. Writing commentaries for Bible translations does not qualify you as a historical linguist, and he is no more to be trusted on the reason for a change in Latin vocabulary than some random guy on the internet or at your local bar. Scholars frequently pronounce on things beyond their ambit.
posted by languagehat at 3:07 PM on September 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Well sure, I'm not evaluating the claim, just making it clear that it's a lot more current than 1864, and providing an explicit mention of the "religious scruples" the original source alluded to. The question was really about the identity of the allusion in that source, and I agree with you that any claim is likely unprovable. I understand that the language and time period in question make it unlikely for a solid argument/evidence ever to be found.

Personally, I've never had a person talk to me about Vulgar Latin in the pub. Vulgar, maybe.
posted by Sova at 4:47 PM on September 8, 2009

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