Life after death

Perceptive readers of Spanish-English Word Connections may have noticed that yesterday’s posting, which discussed Spanish muerto and morir, didn’t make any etymological connections to English. I’d started to write some, but then I decided not to undermine the lines from Jorge Manrique’s “Coplas por la muerte de su padre.” Similarly, although I translated the last words in those lines, el morir, as ‘death,’ I didn’t go on to point out to English speakers the way in which Spanish can use the combination of definite article el plus infinitive as a noun, in this case equivalent to la muerte.

So let me resurrect yesterday’s theme by adding that from the Latin stem mort- ‘dead’ came the Spanish and English adjective mortal, which can mean ‘inherently bound to die,’ as when we admit that all people are mortal, but which can also mean ‘causing death,’ as when we speak of a mortal wound. The neuter Latin adjective mortuarium ‘of or pertaining to the dead,’ came to be used as a noun in the Middle Ages. That led, via French, to English mortuary, of which the wonderful 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica said:

“The chief modern use of the word is for a building in which dead bodies awaiting burial may be temporarily kept, for the purpose of inquiry, identification, post-mortem examination, &c. But it has also been applied to many subjects connected with death and burial. In monastic institutions it was the duty of the almoner to send round to other monastic houses notice of the death of a member, asking for prayers for the soul of the dead. This notice was often beautifully illuminated. On being returned with the endorsement of the monastery to which it had been sent, it would be copied into the roll. Both the notice and the roll were known as a mortuarium, or mortuary…. In the English Church a “mortuary” was in certain places a customary oblation or offering paid out of the estate of a deceased person to the church to which he belonged.”

In around 1895, American English took the mort- of mortuary and added the -ician of words like physician, musician, and magician, to create mortician as a hyped-up term for ‘an undertaker.’ The new barbarism no doubt mortified sensitive users of English, a fact that reminds us that mortificar/mortify is yet another derivative of the Latin stem mort-. As I just used the word, it has the figurative sense ‘to vex, to chagrin,’ but the Spanish and English verbs also have a medical sense closer to their etymology, ‘to destroy the organic texture and vital functions of; to produce gangrene in.’ Spanish and English also share another meaning, ‘to deaden by religious or other discipline, as the carnal affections, bodily appetites, or worldly desires; to bring into subjection; to abase; to humble.’

© 2010 Steven Schwartzman

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: mortaja « Spanish-English Word Connections
  2. Trackback: An end to death « Spanish-English Word Connections

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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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