Sunday, April 24, 2016

I Feel Venerable

(Blogjob tags: communication in romantic relationshipsconfusing pairs of wordsEnglish words derived from Latin rootshistory of religion,history of the English languageword study.)

Not to embarrass anybody...this topic was suggested by some other blogger's post about romantic relationships, in which the blogger (who writes with a charming exotic accent) said that one half of a couple might "feel venerable" in the relationship.
This made me feel sooo much older! So...teacher-like! According to Merriam-Webster, the primary meaning of "venerable" in modern U.S. English is "old and respected," especially "respected because of age."
(If you click on the picture, you should be able to buy the book from Amazon; if you use Bing, you can look up the short definitions online.)
The old Latin roots of the word "venerable" form quite an interesting tangle. The short history of this word is that it comes from "venerate," which means to show special honor, reverence, even worship, as to the Roman Emperor. Ancient Romans burned incense in their temples in the emperor's honor, thus affirming their support for his claim to be descended from the sky god Jove or Jupiter ("Jupiter" was a short form of "Jove the father"). Refusing to venerate the Emperor in this way was considered subversive, and early Christians were executed for the "crime" of saving their veneration for Christ.
As Christianity gained popularity in Rome, and the Empire collapsed, Romans eventually began to "venerate" the saints of the early Christian Church, but their understanding of what they were saying about these people, and why, had changed a good deal. By Renaissance times, "Venerable" had become an ordinary title for a senior official in a Christian church (like the Venerable Bede). Today it's often used tongue-in-cheek to describe recent, as distinct from current, pop culture--"the venerable TV cartoons" of the 1960's, e.g.
If you want to dig down into the subsoil, there are obvious connections between "venerate" and Venus, the ancient Roman goddess of sensual love...and "venereal" diseases, the kind people got specifically from doing things that other religions forbade but the cult of Venus allowed. There are also connections to old words for hunting, another practice that was dedicated to Venus in that cult, and hence to "venison," the kind of meat that was most valuable to hunters.
Anyway, although modern Americans are most likely to use "venerate" in a negative sentence ("Psychologists no longer venerate Freud the way the older generation did"), we still occasionally use "venerable" to describe old traditional ideas, customs, and books.
The word the blogger meant was, of course, "vulnerable." (Americans my age usually pronounce the L; younger people often make these two words sound very similar.) "Vulnerable" means "capable of being hurt," as when we're worried that the other person expects more from a relationship than we expect, or want.
The history of "vulnerable" is relatively straightforward; it comes straight from the old Latin word for "wound." (So does "wound"--in some Latin dialects vulnus probably sounded like "wound.") In English "vulnerable" was first used in military contexts ("Low ground is vulnerable to attack from a higher point"), but quickly acquired a more generalized, personal meaning ("This blog is vulnerable to criticism on several points," or "After declaring his passionate love and seeing the indifferent expression on her face, he felt so vulnerable that he began to hate her").
Or, in summary: As a blogger, constantly writing and self-publishing without an editor to blame for any mistakes that you might find, I am vulnerable. But being able to explain this pair of confusing words makes me feel just a little bit venerable...and, thus, less vulnerable. What fun! Thank you, confused foreign blogger!