And now for something completely different where I dwell or linger awhile on a pet interest of mine: the origin, meaning and nuances of words and language.

When reading, one comes across all kinds of references or allusions, be they classical, legal (usually in Latin or Greek), literary or historical, indeed one could add a whole array of technical terminology. In order to enlighten those who perhaps missed a few things through lacking either an education in the classic languages of Latin and Greek or through grounding in the law which relied heavily on the use of Latin, the very learned Jim O’Donnell, backed by the Institute of Public Administration, published a book entitled Word Gloss in the mid 90’s.

What’s meant, for example by caveat emptor, or a draconian measure or laissez faire economic policies, or an apocryphal story, or indeed an iconoclastic figure, or what’s meant by sine die or a sine qua non or speaking ex cathedra, or who are the silent majority? Needless to say it is one of my favourite reference books – a newer edition was re-packaged and launched last year, so it should be still available in all good book shops, as they say. It is fascinating to read what Professor and Broadcaster Brian Farrell has to say about this important book from which I intend bringing you just some of the entries – all this at no extra charge!!

The World of Words

“Words are the common currency of our communication. We use them, exchange them, discard them. We draw on a rich treasury of words, gathered up over the centuries and millennia of human experience; accumulated, adapted, applied and transformed in use. Too often we speak and write them without much regard for, or even knowledge of, their roots and meanings. Yet it is precisely that discriminating awareness of the root-meaning of words which distinguishes the education, the discerning, the critical elite.

“For long enough, that elite was a social class, preserving their secret word-strength through a classical education. That was not an experience shared with the majority (and deliberately so). Today barriers of class and, to some extent, education are breaking down. Latin and Greek have almost disappeared from the curriculum; English is often taught without much regard for either subtlety or syntax (cad e sin in ainm De). Words, like overused coins and badly rubbed coins are losing their distinctive sharpness and definition with which they were freshly-minted.

“Word Gloss is an invitation to a wide audience to share in the textured abundance of a great cultural heritage. This is a fascinating and revealing collection of words – some current and apparently commonplace, others seemingly esoteric and alien. Jim O’Donnell has constructed an adventure playground with words that leads to a fuller appreciation, and therefore a more exact and powerful command, of language.

“This is a collection of words that every educated person/wordsmith should know and understand. These are the words that many of us use. They are the stock terms of current affairs and economics, of journalism and finance. Through a deeper awareness of their origins we can come to a better understanding of the world in which we live.”

Your P’s & Q’s

First let’s have a look at some ‘P’ words that we use from time to time. Pan for instance is a Greek prefix meaning ‘All’- pantos. It is usefully used to cluster states within a country or region, for example, Pan-American, Pan- European, Pan Arab, Pan African. Pandemonium is literally the place of all the demons and therefore any exceedingly noisy, disorderly place or condition.

A Pantheon then is a temple to all the gods (theos is god in Greek and ‘eon’ is a Greek suffix denoting place). It is also used to describe a building dedicated as a memorial to ‘all’ the great dead – or a notional equivalent of it. Thus in the pantheon of Irish Nationalism there is none more revered than Wolfe Tone. I read that rather interestingly when Tone visited the Pantheon in Paris, he observed: ‘If we have a republic in Ireland, we must build a Pantheon, but we must not, like the French, be in too great a hurry to people it’. Make of that as you will!

Panorama is literally a complete view (horama is a Greek for view) often used now to mean a wide view. Pantheism is a belief that God exists in all the natural world and permeates it. I recall learning that William Wordsworth was a Pantheist, a kind of ‘first cousin’ to a pagan it was suggested to us. But then the word ‘pagan’ comes from Paganus, meaning country dweller.

It has its own story in the time that Christianity spread from city to city of the Roman Empire. Eventually, after the conversion of Emperor Constantine, it became the state religion. The word ‘pagan’ is derived from the period when Christianity had not yet reached the country districts. Come to think of it the word ‘boor’ means a country person coming from the Old English/Dutch word Boer, meaning farmer – note the Dutch/Boer/South Africa connection. While we are at it, what about Dubliners’ references to country folk as Culchies (coming from the place Kiltimagh in Mayo)! Now that was a fun digression, wasn’t it?


Pan as we know by now is the Greek word for All, ‘akos’ is the Greek for remedy. Modern life is complex and modern man is often faced with complex problems for which one must find complex solutions. People, however, like simple solutions and thus reach out in search of a panacea. Was voting ‘No’ a panacea’?

Party Whips, well what are they? Each of the parties in each house of the Oireachtas appoints an officer/member called the Whip who is charged with ensuring that the members of the party are available to vote on issues in the House and of course in line with the party’s policy. On really crucial votes they speak of a three-line-whip. Sounds very sore if you defy this injunction! The term, by the way, comes from fox-hunting where a ‘whipper-in’ keeps the hounds from straying from the pack. The term intimates the privileged character of Parliament at the time it was adopted.

The Patriot Game

Patria is the Latin word for ‘fatherland’. A ‘compatriot’ (com is derived from Latin for ‘with’) means a fellow-countryman. While an ‘expatriate’, is someone who lives outside his or her country. Then to funds invested abroad which are brought home are said to be repatriated. It was the Latin poet who was a contemporary of Caesar Augustus, gave us one of the most famous observations on ‘Patriotism’: dulce et decorum est pro patria mori – it is a sweet and fitting thing to die for one’s country. Though many have also said that it’s an even greater thing to live for one’s country!

Dr. Samuel Johnson, the Englishman, however, in his famous dictionary, defined patriotism as the last refuge of a scoundrel. Meanwhile, George Bernard Shaw, the Irishman, gave us the wittiest definition when he declared: Patriotism is your conviction that this country is the best in the world because you were born in it!

Go seachtain eile, slan.