Church Terminology in Everyday Speech

The Church may not play as prominent a role in society as it did in the Middle Ages, but there are allusions to church feasts and seasons and practices that have become entrenched in our everyday speech. For example, a person who takes a contrary view in an argument is said to be the “devil’s advocate.” The term was first used to describe the role of the person arguing against the canonization of a saint, in order to ensure the objectivity of the process.

You may hear hazelnuts referred to as “filberts”— that’s because they ripen by August 20th, the feast day of St. Philibert, a 7th century abbot.

Joyous occasions are often called “red-letter” days, following the old practice of printing feast days and holy days in red in liturgical books and calendars.

Did you ever wonder about St. Elmo’s fire? That’s the electrical brush discharge or fireball sometimes seen around ship masts and rigging during storms. The truth is, there is no formally canonized St. Elmo. The name might be a corruption of St. Anselm of Lucca.

One of my favorites is the word “tawdry”, which evolved from St. Audrey, whose name is a corruption of Etheldrida. The word refers to ostentatious low-quality lace and costume jewelry at the annual St. Audrey fair on the Isle of Ely in the UK.

But perhaps the most common English word or phrase with a religious origin is the simple phrase “Good-bye”. Like the French phrase “adieu”, or the Spanish “adios,” it’s a contraction of the phrase “God be with you.” So, every time you say “Good-bye” you’re really pronouncing a blessing.

by Fr. Larry Rice, CSP. Fr. Rice serves as director of the University Catholic Center at the University of Texas–Austin. Copyright © 2017, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. All rights reserved.

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