Saturday, January 24, 2009

Inauguration: post 1

Welcome, etymology fans! Although I would usually be continuing to comment this week about the Latin root I started last week, that is spirare (to breathe), let's take a short breather from that to discuss all the fascinating Greek and Latin roots behind the wonderful inaugural proceedings of the new 44th President, Barack H. Obama. Let's begin at the heart of the English word inauguration by looking at its word origins:

Augeo, augere, auxi, auctum—to increase, make greater, enhance
+ consider the following root which is related to augere:
Augur—diviner, seer

What exactly is an inauguration? To the ancient Romans, augurs, or those who tried to predict the future (seers, prophets, oracles, or seers would be suitable synonyms) would often forecast an upcoming term of rule by a magistrate (such as a consul or emperor) by examining the activities of birds which would lay open or intimate the near future success of his rule. Often the augur, during the ritual which initiated the new magistrate, would examine the flight paths of birds to determine whether or not they predicted a good or auspicious reign for the new leader. Indeed, as you may have guessed, the word auspicious, which today means favorable, propitious, or successful when considering the beginning of a particular activiy, comes from two key Latin roots:

avis: bird (hence the "au," an English root or stem which usually signifies the Latin word aurum: gold, but in this instance the "v" is changed to a "u" for purposes of euphony and ease of pronunciation), from which also comes words such as "aviation" and "aviary"


Specio, specere, spexi, spectum—to see, observe, look, watch over {spic, spis, spit} (from which comes a whole host of English derivatives, an aesthetically appealing and arboreal list of which can be found on the most comprehensive Greek and Latin roots dictionary available at )

Hence, the English vocabulary word "auspicious" at base means "looking at" or "observing birds" in order to forecast a favorable or propitious future. Indeed, many augurs could hardly cast little less than a favorable augury, or prophecy, beneath the gaze of an expectant inductee into office, especially that of an omnipotent emperor!

Hence, we then see that to inaugurate a president is to ‘enhance’ or 'increase' his chances of success via an auspicious formal ritual. The origin of this ceremony included the ‘diviner,’ who would ascertain the success of the new magistrate via prophetic signs, such as the flight path of birds, and sometimes even their feeding habits. Consider the vast ritual and preparatory activities that surrounded the inauguration of President Barack Obama: wonderful music, a physical crowd nearing one million spectators, a global audience branching into the billions, braving the elements, the pomp and circumstance of the balls, the incredible speech given by Mr. Obama himself (I was stunned that, without a hitch, he delivered this, unfazed and sans notes, before the collected expectant masses of the world), the readying of the city of Washington, D.C, and yea, even the re-swearing in of the President the next day in order to ensure the formal authenticity of his new Presidency (this has Roman origins based in superstition: if the ritual for the incoming magistrate was not performed perfectly, that is, if a word was mispoken or a sacrifice of a snow white bull was not carried out in the prescribed manner, the ceremony would have to be done over again; the Romans were firm believers in a quid pro quo relationship between themselves and their gods...if they gave the gods exactly what they wanted, then they would receive exactly what they wanted, in this case, a successful term for ruling). This is why the inauguration of our 44th President was such a big deal: not only did it have deep and meaningful present-day historical significance, but it also possessed a deep and long historical chain of ceremonious conduct leading up to it, a thing lawyers love to call precedence, on which they place much significance.

And so it was with the inaugural proceedings of our new President, the most powerful leader in the world, which only served to hopefully augment, or etymologically increase or make greater, his chances at fulfilling his lofty campaign promises to fix a currently broken world.

Did you enjoy all the subsidiary words talked about in the above post? If so, check out this Greek English vocabulary words site, sure to whet your appetite for the core of the English language. Interested in a Greek and Latin roots poster that features the power of Greek and Latin root words? Or more beautiful Greek and Latin root word trees that list 100s of English derivatives? For the verbal enthusiast serious about learning his English vocabulary, there is no quicker route to learning and remembering our wonderful English language.