Jewish World Review August 11, 2002 / 13 Menachem-Av, 5763
Editors of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate
"Halcyon days''; Why isn't "sacrilegious'' spelled "sacreligious''?; "red light'' and "green light'' as expression which came first, the inaction or the signals?
I've heard this expression about "halcyon days'' of youth and wondered if you would explain what it means and where it comes from. Thank you.
_ S. H., Los Angeles, Calif.
Dear S. H.:
"Halcyon days'' traditionally refers to happy times or a period of calm and contentment. "Halcyon'' is Greek for the bird we call "kingfisher'' and was popularly believed to have the underlying meaning "conceives on the sea.'' The associated myth reflects the folk belief that kingfishers at one time built their nests on the sea, though now they breed on land like other birds.
In Greek mythology Halcyon was the daughter of Aeolus, god of the winds. She married a mortal named Ceyx, who drowned at sea during a storm. In her grief, Halcyon threw herself into the waves to be near him. The gods in their compassion for her unhappiness or, as another version claims, in their anger at her suicide, changed them both into kingfishers.
Aeolus used his power over the winds to grant them 14 days of calm weather around the winter solstice to lay their eggs. The seven days before the shortest day of the year were for them to build their nest, and the seven days after to sit on the eggs.
That calm weather became known as "halcyon days,'' and from there the phrase extended its meaning beyond weather to describe states like youth and economic prosperity.
Why isn't "sacrilegious'' spelled "sacreligious,'' since it's a word relating to religion?
_ D. M., Seattle, Wash.
Dear D. M.:
It certainly looks as though "sacrilegious'' is related to "religious,'' especially since the word often describes irreverent treatment of religious objects or places. However, as hard as it may be to believe, a word that initially applied to issues such as the improper reception of a sacrament is actually no relative to "religious'' at all.
"Sacrilegious'' comes from "sacrilege,'' which is ultimately derived from a combination of the Latin words "sacer'' ("sacred'') and "legere'' ("to gather, steal''). "Sacrilege'' can be traced back to the Latin "sacrilegus,'' meaning "one who steals sacred things''; it's not too surprising, then, that "sacrilegious'' refers to the desecration of sacred objects (as by stealing them). "Religious,'' on the other hand, is derived from the Latin "religiosus,'' itself from "religio,'' meaning "supernatural constraint or religious practice.'' The apparent resemblance between "sacrilegious'' and "religious'' is therefore purely a coincidence. It might be easier to correctly spell "sacrilegious'' by forgetting all about "religious'' and remembering that it's spelled like "sacrilege'' (minus the silent "e'') with an added "-ious.''
I've noticed that the terms "red light'' and "green light'' are used figuratively to indicate that an action is allowed or prohibited almost as often as they're used literally. Which meaning came first?
_ A. C., Harrisburg, Pa.
Dear A. C.:
It may surprise you to learn that colored lights were used to regulate traffic long before the invention of the automobile.
Back in the early 1800s, the growing popularity of train travel necessitated the use of signals to direct traffic: a red light meant stop and a green light meant proceed cautiously. Before long, signal lights became so ingrained in the common culture that the color red came to be associated with something not being permitted. In 1849, Charlotte Bronte wrote in her novel Shirley, "He is one of Mrs. Yorke's warning examples one of the blood-red lights she hangs out to scare young ladies from matrimony.'' Interestingly, however, the term "green light'' did not acquire its current figurative meaning until around 1937, 25 years after the invention of the automobile traffic light by Lester Farnsworth Wire. The following quotation from our files exemplifies modern figurative use of "red light'' and "green light'': "The ... City Council gave a green light Tuesday night to the revitalization committee to proceed with the Hand Avenue Project and gave the red light to pornography in the city.''
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