Jewish World Review August 4, 2002 / 6 Menachem-Av, 5763
Editors of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate
"Votive'' candles; "cosmeticizing"; "potluck''
Why do we call those small cylindrical candles "votive'' candles?
F. C., Portland, Maine
Dear F. C:
The adjective "votive'' derives from the Latin noun "votum,'' meaning "vow.'' Though very much in vogue these days, "votive'' candles go back almost a thousand years.
When Charlemagne assumed the title of Holy Roman Emperor in the year 800 , one of his first orders of business was to standardize and regulate the type of worship being conducted throughout his kingdom (which covered an area that extended from modern-day Italy through Germany and into France). With the help of the Anglo-Latin abbot Alcuin, Charlemagne began the slow work of re-establishing the Roman Rite as the standard of worship throughout Western Europe. Alcuin was instrumental in expanding and regulating the use of a once-infrequent "votive mass'' to help ease the pagan (and extremely superstitious) British into Roman Christianity. The votive masses were held for various reasons, such as to bless the crops, to pray for fertility and the health of newborn children, to ask for protection against various diseases of the day, and to pray for the blessing of livestock and property.
By the early 1600s, the word "votive'' was being applied to objects used in worship (one text from 1611 speaks of a "votive Altar'') or the objects offered in worship, including candles. As the centuries wore on, votive masses were consigned to special occasions (such as funerals and weddings), and "votive'' moved from the church to the streets. By the 20th century the small cylindrical candles offered in votive masses were being used in the home. Although they gained a new, more secular use, their ecclesiastical moniker remained.
My mother drives me crazy by saying that she "cosmeticizes'' her face by applying makeup. Is she making up that word?
A. M., Flagstaff, Ariz.
Dear A. M.:
She's "making up'' her face, but, no, she's not making up the word - "cosmeticize'' has been in use since at least the early 19th century. It is not an especially common word, but you can find it in any large dictionary. Its earliest uses were in the literal sense employed by your mother, "to apply a cosmetic to,'' but it now usually has the figurative sense "to make (something unpleasant or ugly) superficially attractive.'' You are more likely to read that someone is attempting to "cosmeticize'' a failure or tragedy than that someone is "cosmeticizing'' her face. Given that, your mother might want to rethink her word choice.
An even rarer option is "cosmetize,'' which is a synonym of "cosmeticize'' in both its literal and figurative senses. Presumably you won't like that one either.
Could you please tell me where or how the term "potluck'' came about?
S. H., Flint, Mich.
Dear S. H.:
"Potluck'' originated several hundred years ago; its first recorded use in print was in 1592. One account of its origin, perhaps a bit more colorful than factual, says that peasants of that time, since they received no appreciable wages and had no local grocery store at which they could do their shopping, depended mostly on whatever bits of meat they could scrape together or their lord felt like giving them. When there was enough meat in the pot, they would make a stew. It was never exactly the same kind of stew twice, because on different days, different things had the "luck'' of falling into the pot.
Today, unexpected guests are often served "potluck'' for dinner. They are served whatever happens to be in the pot (or the freezer) that night. And "potluck suppers'' are affairs having no planned menu. Each person brings a dish or pot to pass, and with luck a balanced menu falls into place. And if everyone does not bring macaroni salad, then that's especially good luck.
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