Language Reports

Divine Attributes

September 2019

For the most part, different personal qualities are best suited to different situations: in work, persistence and ambition are key; in friendship, loyalty and kindness are essential. Then again, some qualities seem to be universally desirable. Who wouldn’t welcome a person who brings spirit, enthusiasm and inspiration to any situation? It may come as no surprise that these words, before they came to describe those transcendental human characteristics, were all used in relation to the divine. We hope that their stories leave you suitably inspired.

Inspiration

Inspire and its noun counterpart inspiration both have literal and figurative senses. They refer to the physical act of breathing in, or, more commonly, to an influx of motivation or ideas. Literal and figurative meanings also existed in the shared ancestor of both words: the Latin verb inspirare, decomposable into spirare, meaning “breathe”, and the prefix -in, meaning “in”. Inspirare originally meant “to breathe or blow into”, which later developed the secondary meaning “to instill (something) into (someone)”, by analogy with the idea of imparting it through one’s breath.

It was in this figurative sense that inspire and inspiration first entered the English language, both through Anglo-Norman (the verb inspirer and the noun inspiracion, from the Late Latin inspiratio). They were initially used in exclusively theological contexts: inspiration was understood as a kind of divine influence, and was especially used to describe the various theories of how scripture came to be written by the hand of mortals. One such theory, known as verbal inspiration, suggested that scriptures were word-for-word transcriptions dictated directly by God. Inspiration soon came to be used in contexts other than religion, although it is still understood to refer to something slightly mysterious, or even supernatural, that contributes to someone’s creative process.

The Latin sense “to breathe or blow into” was also carried into English, both in inspiration and inspire, having been recorded in texts as early as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. This usage became obsolete, and the only physical sense of inspire still present in today’s English has the meaning “to breathe in”. Even this sense is mostly confined to the fields of medicine and biology, while most other contexts prefer inhale. In fact, a number of other words that have little to do with breathing can be traced back to the Latin root spirare, including aspire, spirit and even spire.

Spirit

It is no coincidence that spirit bears resemblance to a number of other English words, including inspire, respire, and many more. All of these words are related to one Latin word: spirare, meaning “to breathe”. The noun counterpart of spirare, spiritus, meant “a breath”, “air” or “inspiration”.

Spirit is widely believed to have entered the English language through Anglo-Norman (spirit). However, as the Oxford English Dictionary points out, it appears that the earliest uses of the word in English are direct translations from Latin. The Vulgate, an influential Latin translation of the Bible produced in the 4th century, uses spiritus to translate the Greek word pneuma (πνεῦμα), which had multiple senses, including “breath”, “supernatural being” and “the vital, non-physical element of a person or animal”. In these latter two senses, spiritus was in turn translated as spirit in Middle English editions of the Bible. Compare the following passage from the Vulgate—spiritus Dei ferebatur super aquas—with its equivalent in Wycliffe’s Bible—the Spiryt of the Lord was borun on the Watris (“the Spirit of God moved upon the waters”, Genesis 1:1).

Spirit, which replaced the Middle English word gast (an ancestor of ghost) entered into widespread usage and acquired a number of new meanings, some of which appear far removed from the original “spiritual” senses. How, for example, did it come to mean “a strong alcoholic drink”? The most likely explanation is that spirit was also used to mean “a highly refined or distilled substance”, a likely derivative of the earlier sense “the vital (non-physical) element (of a person or being)”. Since vodka, whisky and similar drinks contain significant amounts of the distilled substance ethanol, it is easy to imagine how they, too, came to be known as spirits.

The verb spirit is derived from the noun, and was first recorded in the 1500s in the sense “to take (someone or something) away” (in a mysterious manner, as if the perpetrator were a spirit). The adjective spirited, meanwhile is recorded in the 1600s with the meaning “lively and full of spirit” (spirit in the sense of “vitality”, as in “the vital element”).

Enthusiasm

Enthusiasm can be traced back to two elements in Ancient Greek: the prefix en, meaning “in” and theos, meaning “God”. These combined into entheos, meaning “possessed or inspired by a god”, and its derivative enthousiasmos, meaning “divine possession or inspiration”. It described a situation in which a god would enter a person’s body and assume control of it. The god Apollo was believed to employ enthusiasmos to communicate through the body of the Pythia, high priestess of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi.

Enthusiasm entered English by way of Latin (enthusiasmus), then French (enthousiasme). Its meaning was initially pejorative, describing a deluded state in which a person believes they are acting under the influence of God. It went on to develop a more secular sense in the 1800s, where its meaning became roughly equivalent to “fanaticism” or “overenthusiasm” in today’s language. Around the mid-19th century, this negative connotation was dropped and enthusiasm acquired its present-day sense.

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