As yesterday’s posting about finisecular noted, Latin saeculum or seculum meant at its most literal ‘a race, breed, generation,’ and by extension ‘a lifetime, an age.’ In particular, saeculum came to designate ‘a century,’ which is the meaning of its Spanish descendant siglo. From saeculum Latin created the adjective secularis, which meant ‘pertaining to a century or to a very long interval.’ Perhaps because of the so-called Secular Games that the Romans celebrated every 100 or 110 years*, secularis took on the senses ‘worldly, temporal, profane, lay; pagan, heathen.’ Those are meanings of English secular, whose primary connotation is now ‘not concerned with religion’; in other words, secular stands in contrast to sacred.

Spanish secular retains the sense ‘occurring once each century’ or ‘lasting for a century,’ but with reference to a priest it designates one who lives in the world rather than being cloistered. Spanish also has the more phonetically developed doublet seglar, which as an adjective can mean the same as English secular,’ and as a noun is ‘a laic, a member of the laity, a layperson.’ To secularizar/secularize is ‘to make something less religious and more worldly.’ That process is known as secularización/secularization. The now-seldom-used English adjective supersecular means ‘being above worldly or secular things.’ For example, the Reverend Joseph Hall wrote about celebrating the birth of Christ “not in a worldly but supersecular manner.” In contrast, on the model of phrases like super intelligent and super nice, some English speakers have begun using super secular (or super-secular or supersecular) to mean ‘extremely secular,’ which is the opposite of what supersecular used to mean.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

* We can see that the increasingly many people alive today who claim, beyond the bounds of arithmetic, to give 110% of themselves to this or that endeavor, are following in a long tradition of numerical inflation.


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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