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September 01, 2017  |  Friday words, 2017-09-01  |  1034 hit(s)

Happy September, y’all. In the US, of course, it’s Labor Day weekend, which is the symbolic end of summer. It’s been an eventful one for us, that’s for sure. And of course there are words.

The new-to-me term today is old, and I would be surprised if it’s new to a specific subset of my friends.[1] The word is psychomachia, alternative rendering psychomachy, a term with a literary history. It refers to a “conflict of the soul” (Greek, as you’d guess—psyche: “spirit/mind/soul”; makhe, “battle”). As I encountered the word, it was used to refer to a battle between good and evil within an individual, and especially for an artistic representation of this conflict:


Or to use the example that Facebook Friend Jan posted, and which she later mused might be taken as a representation of psychomachia:


The word was used as the title of an allegorical poem written in the 5th century about a rumble between virtues (with virtue-osic names like Hope and Chastity) and vices (Avarice, Lust, and other names that have not, as yet, been used for the children of celebrities). And when I say "rumble," I ain't kidding—the poem literally describes a set of gladiator-style engagements:
His method of presentation is a series of single combats, recalling the style of epic poems like the Aeneid and the Iliad. Thus Faith begins the fray by doing combat with Idolatry. Chastity then fights Lust, and Patience vies with Anger. Pride rides onto the field on a high horse to rally her comrades, and tries to trample down Humility and her supporter, Hope. But Pride falls […]"
While we contemplate to what extent Game of Thrones is an allegorical poem about the conflict between good and evil, let me turn to word origins. During an insomniac spell recently I got to wondering where the word burglar had come from. (Midnight musing are unpredictable, eh?) It’s a bit unexpected, actually. An early English word for burglar was burgh-breche, where breche is related to break and burgh is a fortified place. (All those -burg cities in Germany, for example, and -borough towns in England, and more distantly, the word bourgeois for residents of burgs.) Even so, we probably got burglar as a legal term via Latin; it entered English as burgator. An interesting path right there: a Germanic root adopted into Latin, borrowed as a legal term back into English.

Fair enough, but what about that L in the middle, I hear you asking. The term burglator showed up more or less concurrently with burgator. One theory is that the L is “from influence of” the Latin word latro in Latin, which means “thief.” (Related: larceny; Spanish: ladrón; see also the Rossini opera La gazza ladra, aka “The Thieving Magpie.”) The OED repeats this theory, but states that the theory “is contrary to the evidence.” Conclusion: we don’t really know.

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[1] Don't tell anyone, but I really like working with humanities majors.