In this week’s The Secret Lives of Words, Rick LaFleur explores the many faces, and deep roots, of grace.
If your family members not only grace you with their presence at Thanksgiving dinner but actually have the good grace to refrain from prattling politics through the entire meal, you need to thank the Romans.
Their word gratia has bequeathed to us a verbal cornucopia (Latin for "horn of plenty," as in CORNet and COPIous) that we can be GRATeful for, especially during this holiday season and at a time when our friends, family and possibly even ourselves, grimly disgruntled by disGRACeful politicians, may occasionally lapse into GRACEless, inGRACious behavior.
The legacy of Latin, the language of ancient Rome, includes not only the Romance languages - Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Romanian, inter alia (Latin, of course, for "among others") - but about 60 percent of our English vocabulary as well. Among those ca. 100,000 Latinate words (circa being Latin for "about"), a GRACious plenty derive from that one wondrous word, gratia, whose basic meanings are "favor," "goodwill," and "kindness."
Our word "grace" comes straight from the Latin term, which the Romans used also to mean "charm" and aGREEableness (aGREE itself derives from gratia, by way of French). The Romans could appreciate, as we do, not only the grace of a person’s appearance and demeanor, but also the gracefulness of one’s speech or writing.
In modern theology just a bit of "divine grace" may save us from perdition; such is the hope of the 18th century Christian hymn, "Amazing Grace" (Elvis Presley recorded a powerfully emotional version in 1971) and sprung from that notion is the expression, "there but for the Grace of God go I!" In classical myth the GRACes/Gratiae (Charites in Greek), three sisters often associated with Venus (in some versions her daughters), were the embodiment of charm and beauty, creativity and fertility.
No wonder then that "Grace" has long been a popular girls’ name. Oldster that I am, I laughed at, and along with, the whacky Gracie Allen (comedienne, wife, and stage partner of comedian George Burns); I revered Grace Patricia Kelly (the princess of Monaco, not Brett Butler’s single mom in the 90s sitcom "Grace Under Fire"); and I unashamedly rank Grace Slick’s surrealistic "White Rabbit" among the top psychedelic rock hits of all time, even now a half century after its 1967 release (if you don’t believe that, go ask Alice). And speaking of music and my wife Alice, she reminded me to mention Elvis’s home, the Memphis mansion "Graceland," which he bought for his mom and dad in 1957 and where he met his untimely death 20 years later.
Another of the most common meanings of gratia in ancient Rome was simply "thanks," a sense that has given us GRATeful and GRATifying (something that makes you thankful) as well as the practice of saying GRACe before our Thanksgiving turkey. As a token of thanks, you may be given something GRATis, and hopefully you leave a server a generous GRATuity as an expression of your thanks.
Unless you are an inGRATe, you should acknowledge a kindness shown you by a Hispanic friend with a hearty muchas GRACias (from Lat. multas gratias/many thanks, as in MULTiple and MULTitude) and if you travel in Italy you will inGRATiate yourself with your hosts if you’ve GRACiously learned to say mille GRAZie, not just "many" but a "thousand thanks" (think MILLipede/a thousand feet and MILLennium/a thousand years).
Persuaded by the vigorous advocacy of renowned writer and editor Sarah Josepha Buell Hale (among whose many other accomplishments was authoring the nursery rhyme "Mary Had a Little Lamb"), President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863. It was around that same time that the term "wishbone" was first applied to the fused clavicles of a chicken or turkey used in making holiday wishes.
The Brits had for centuries called the bone a "merry-thought" (not, perhaps, so merry for the bird!) and fancied that whoever yanked at it and broke off the larger half would sooner be married or granted whatever else she or he wished for. In Latin the bone is called furcula, "little fork," as it resembles the ancient Romans’ two-pronged furca, source of our word FORK (and even biFURCated). The tradition of tugging at the bones to gain a wish is traced by some to Rome and their neighbors the Etruscans, who commonly used "sacred chickens" in divining the will of the gods.
Some days, watching the news or events around us (even presidential turkey pardons - define that as you wish!), we Americans may feel we’re falling from grace, as though graciousness and gratitude are no longer qualities to be valued. But at Thanksgiving-time especially I think of the Roman poet Horace’s exhortation nil desperandum (as in anNIHILate and DESPERAtion), meaning "we mustn’t despair."
Here’s my merry-thought hope for the holidays: that our society’s one saving grace may be a renewed commitment to, well, saving grace.
Rick LaFleur is retired from 40 years of teaching Latin language and literature at the University of Georgia, which during his tenure came to have the largest Latin enrollment of all of the nation’s colleges and universities; his latest book is Ubi Fera Sunt, a lively, lovingly wrought translation into classical Latin of Maurice Sendak’s classic, Where the Wild Things Are. Rick’s Facebook group, "Doctor Illa Flora’s Latin in the Real World," numbers over 3,000 members. He and his wife Alice live part of the year in Apalachicola, under the careful watch of their French bulldog Ipsa.