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July 05, 2019  |  Friday words #179  |  262 hit(s)

For reasons I cannot recollect, I find myself reading a book about ufology, the study of UFOs. The author is a professor of religion, and she's interested in ufology as a type of religious thinking. It's from this that I learned the word hierophany.

Hierophany is from Greek (hier(o) for "sacred" + phany for "show") and refers to physical manifestations of the holy or the sacred. The author says that the story of the burning bush that spoke to Moses (Exodus 3) is a classic example of a hierophany. There are other familiar ones; Marian apparitions like those in Lourdes or in Mexico (as Our Lady of Guadalupe) are also hierophanies.

As an article in Encyclopedia.com says about the definition of hierophany, "The term involves no further specification. Herein lies its advantage: It refers to any manifestation of the sacred in whatever object throughout history." Thus D. W. Pasulka, the author of the book I'm reading, focuses her experience in religious studies on the phenomena of UFOs. She discusses hierophanies using the neutral term "contact events." You can see how the many stories around UFO sightings, visitations, and crash debris, and the belief community that has arisen around these, begin to sound familiar to someone who views extraordinary phenomena through a lens of religious studies.

I haven't finished the book, so I don't know yet where she lands on the question of whether UFOs are a real thing. But for purposes of hierophany, it doesn't matter. On this question, she quotes the famed ufologist Jacques Vallée: "the formation of mass belief in [UFOs] does not depend on its objective reality."

On to origins. Today I wanted to unpack the word sombrero, which is the generic Spanish word for "hat." The easy origin story for that word is "It's from Spanish," basta. But when we were in Mexico recently (probably when we were trying on hats), I had this D'oh moment when I realized that a sombrero is a hat that gives you sombra—that is, shade. It's literally a "shade-r." I do love these little moments when some "foreign" word falls into place like that.

We don't have the word sombra in English, but we have some of its relatives, which mostly show up without the initial s. The Latin stem is umbra, which we have in English, along with penumbra. Someone who's somber is in a dark mood. We also have the word umbrage, as in "take umbrage," which seems remarkably similar to the contemporary expression "throwing shade."

In a highly satisfying parallelism, we also have the word umbrella. Although my personal sense of umbrella is that it's a protection against rain, it's more generally a portable canopy that can protect against rain, sure, but that etymologically speaking provides … shade. So like its cousin the sombrero, an umbrella is a "shade-r."

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