Palin and Lalia
Theological Terms I
Theological Terms II
Theol. Terms III
Noso and Noce/Nocu
Milton, Book I (PL)
Oo and Ovi
Labors of Hercules I
Oblectation et al.
Dissimulare et al.
Acroama et al.
Tetrous et al.
Commeate et al.
Obsolete et al.
Subtle et al. I
Hesitate et al. (Ovid)
Excoriate et al. I
Excoriate et al. II
Commeate, Comma et al.
Bill Long 1/12/09
Continuing the Ciceronian Feast
As I have been reading Cicero's speech supporting the Manilian law, proposed in 66 BCE to help deal with the problems Rome faced in the "Far East" (i.e., with Mithridates and Tigranes in Asia Minor), I continue to come across Latin words which have, or have had, an English-language connection that make me want to stop and explore the connection. Why? Because this activity helps us understand two languages very deeply--which never can be bad.
Cicero often uses the word commeatus, which had its origins in military parlance and meant a "free passage" or a "coming and going" of troops. It is a very rich word, and could also mean a "furlough, supply-train, convoy; supplies, provisions." Perhaps derived from this military usage is the notion of a "communication" or a "trip." Thus, in par. 53 of his Oration on the Manilian Law, the text reads:
"cum ex omnibus provinciis commeatu et privato et publico prohibebamur?"
This may be translated, "when we are prohibited from private and public communications out of all the provinces..." But I had never taken the word apart until today. It consists of two words: com, which is an alternate form of cum, which means "with" and eo, which means "go." The verb commeo means "to go back and forth" or "to go up and down." Thus, a commeatus is either a kind of physical motion back and forth, or it points to those things that go "back and forth" (i.e., the supply-trains) or it relates to a figurative "going back and forth" (i.e., a communication).
With this background we are ready to come to English. The OED has three words derived from this root: commeate (v), commeation and commeator (nouns). All of them are called "obsolete," but obsolescene is only in the mind of the beholder. The OED only gives examples of commeate from the 17th century, which fits my theory that the English langauge was "discovering" itself in that century as England "discovered" the world. It means, predictably, "To pass to and fro, penetrate in all direction." From mid-century: "Pythagoras defined what God is, thus, A mind which commeateth, and is diffused through every part of the Word." Or, from 1698: "Fidlers doe commeate from place to place." Why not then just use the one word commeate, instead of two?
Commeation, one of the noun forms of the word, was taken up in theological discourse, as this 1852 quotation shows: "The circumsession or commeation of the three Persons" (i.e., of the Trinity). That there was a confusion in the 1852 quotation is shown in the next sentence. "This word, sometimes termed circumincession..." Actually, the English word is circumincession (circumcession seems to be erroneous), a theological term going back to the 17th century, translating the Latin circumincessio. Circumincessio is first employed by the 8th century theologian Damascenus to translate the Greek word perichoresis, which literally means "circuition, rotation." Damascenus was trying to explain the biblical text (John 14:10), "I am in the Father, and the Father in me."
We have a little problem here. First, let's look at the two Latin terms. Circumsedere gives birth to circumsession. Circumsedere means "to sit around" or "beset, besiege." But circumincession is from circumincedo, and incedo is a Latin term with many meanings, ranging from "to arrive on the scene" and "to go on foot," to "go into or on to." If Damascenus rendered periochoresis (a "rotation" or "going round") as circumincessio, how did circumincessio come to mean not simply the "going around" of the three members of the Trinity, but the actual "insitting" or "indwelling," which actually seems to be the meaning of the Biblical passage from the Gospel of John that Damascenus was trying to interpret? Why, also, did someone first of all describe the relatedness of Father and Son in the above Scripture as a "perichoresis," which really means a "rotation"? It seems that you have something like this: (1) A Scripture verse stressing actual "indwelling" of Persons of the Trinity; (2) A Greek philosophical rendering of this activity as perichoresis, which I think isn't a very good word; (3) A Latin word, circumincessio, which has a meaning that could incorporate the original Biblical meaning, even though that is only one of the five or six usages of the Latin term. So, it could be that (3) leaped right over (2) in its attempt to interpret (1).
Actually, the word circumincession to describe the interrelationship of Persons in the Trinity didn't really "catch on" unanimously in English theology. We have this from a 1717 sermon: "These men..have by their Modalities, Suppositalities, Circumincessions, and twenty such other Chimeras, so misrepresented this..Article of the Trinity to men's reason..." Or, a wonderful sentence from 1873: "A callow student of theology confesses that he is fairly gravelled by the hypostatic circumincession."
Actually, aren't you arrested by the use of the word gravel as a verb in the just-quoted sentence? From the Century dictionary, fourth definition, we have this: "Gravel (v): to bring to a standstill through perplexity; embarrass; puzzle; nonplus." From Ralph Waldo Emerson, "The wisest doctor is gravelled by the inquisitiveness of a child." I am going to a convention of doctors later this week; I wonder if I should either use the word gravel in this sense or wonder if the questions of a child gravel them...?
Thus, the word circumincession made it into English-language theology, but commeation, only referred to in an 1852 quotation, seems not to have been of much use. But for all the confusion attending circumincession, why not replace it by commeation? Hm..maybe at the next meeting of modern scholastic theologians (which I never attend), I will suggest it... Finally, a commeator is "one that goes to and fro, as a Messenger," though I frankly don't see much use for that word.
On an unrelated thought, I almost used the word cicerone in an email yesterday, to describe a "guide"...for Cicero was used as a sort of guide in the past for those wanting to learn Latin or the art of rhetoric. I held back from using the term, lest it not be understood and recipients of the email be a little bent out of shape because they might have to learn a word in trying to understand what I am saying. I regret, now that I think of it, not using that term. But I don't think it is appropriate to use Commeator to describe a messenger. Whereas use of cicerone is elegant, use of commeator is simply an expression of obscurantism.
Closing with Comma/Commatism
My eye couldn't help wandering up the dictionary page to find comma and commatism. Of course, we know the word comma as a punctuation mark to separate two parts of a sentence. Yet, in fact, the word is from Greek and means "a stamp, piece cut off, short clause." It derives from the Greek verb koptein, which means to "strike" or "cut." Thus, a comma, really, is a phrase or "cut off" group of words. Originally it was defined as "a phrase or group of words less than a colon; hence a short member of a sentence or period." Commatism, then, is brevity in expression or "commatic character." From an 1801 commentary on Hosea: "The parallelism in many parts of Hosea is imperfect, interrupted, and obscure; an effect perhaps of the commatism of the style." This refers, as the author says, to Jerome's remark about Hosea: "Osee commaticus est."
Commation, however, has a meaning in ancient Greek comedy. It is a "short song in trochaic or anapestic verse, in which the leader of the chorus bade farewell to the actors as they retired from the stage before the parabasis." Now doesn't that open up all kinds of delightful possibilties for exploration (I look at some Greek metrical terms here).
Thanks for joining me. It is so good to be back on the words...
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long