Papal Language


The Pope of Mope

The occasion of a papal visit brings with it an opportunity to consider certain comfortable words. I use comfortable in its earlier sense, “strengthening or  supporting (morally or spiritually); encouraging, inspiring, reassuring, cheering,” to which the Oxford English Dictionary archly adds, “Obs. or arch.” But then the papacy has something arch. about it, though it is certainly not obs.

What are these words? To begin with, pope. It goes way back beyond the origin of the papacy to an ancient papa, a child’s word for father in many languages then and now. In the early Christian church, papa was used as father still is, in addressing “spiritual fathers” and “as a term of respect for ecclesiastics of high position, especially bishops … in the early 3rd cent. in Tertullian” (the Christian author) per the OED.


Historia ecclesiastica gentis anglorum

Papa is also the earliest English  form of the word noted in the OED, Uitalius papa (Pope Vitalian) from the Old English translation of Historia ecclesiastica gentis anglorum by the first English historian, the Venerable Bede (a comfortable name).

By the 13th century, however, English writers had begun using the alternate form pope, first exemplified by the OED in a collection of homilies dated ca. 1225, in a list that begins “prophetes, apostles, popes, archebissopes.”

The pope’s position of authority and supposed infallibility has evoked allusions in many fields: for example, the Pope of Pop (Andy Warhol),  the Pope of Mope (Morrissey, former lead singer of the Smiths), and the Pope of Pot (Mickey Cesar, who made marijuana deliveries in New York city in the 1990s).

And then there is the more formal name pontiff, known in English since the 16th century, leading to the comfortable verb pontificate. The latter is more recent, with the earliest OED example dated 1898. That’s plenty of time for pontificating on Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy.

The Daily Kos tells us that Rush Limbaugh “loves to pontificate on what Donald Trump should do next. Bully to Bully.”

On Twitter, Cris Jarrell declares, “Trump pontificates on many issues but never answers questions. It’s all about him and how he leads in the polls.”

On the website Reader Supported News, Robert S. Becker proclaims, “Too bad he’s not Catholic or he could fancy himself Pope Francis’ replacement. Trump pontificates enough for five popes.”

A comfortable thought, to know that there is a word ready and waiting to describe the words and deeds of the candidates.

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