Posts Tagged ‘English words from Latin’

Auspicious Bird Watching

November 5, 2007

Today we add a new category category to our our blog blog. We call it the Department of Redundant Redundancies. Our title today is the charter member of the category. It is the result of one of the delightful synchronicities of blogging. A friend of a friend mentioned to our friend that “auspicious” means “watching birds.” Our friend, the blogger at , passed the information along to us for research.

His friend was correct.

Our word “auspice” is a combination of two Latin words “awi” and “specere.” “Awi” means “bird” and “specere” means “to observe” or “to look at.” Thus “auspicious” means to observe birds, so “auspicious bird watching” is redundant.

We get a lot of words from “specere”. Spy, espionage, despicable, [to look down on] specimen, spectacle, speculate, circumspect, conspicuous, expect, despise, retrospect, suspect, perspective and – one of our new favorites – transpicuous, which isn’t even in our spelling dictionary and means, “easily understood or seen through.” Our friend who told us about “auspicious” is transpicuous: He didn’t want to have to look up all these words so he tricked us into doing it.

From “awi,” we get osprey, ostrich, oval, ovary, caviar and bustard; but we wouldn’t call our friend a bustard just because he tricked us into doing all this work.

But back to more respectable birds. Another of the Latin words that comes from these base words is “auspicium” which means “omen” or “divination.” Romans watched birds and flights of birds for clues about the future. Thus Shakespeare has Casca say to Cicero:

Yesterday the bird of night did sit,
Even at noon-day, upon the market place,
Hooting and shrieking.

That was a bad omen, a bad “augury”; a word which means “portent” or “divination from omens”. (By the way, the “bird of night” Shakespeare referred to was an owl; another example of the bad but undeserved reputations of owls that Mr. Forbush talked about here.) Birds provided clues to the future. In Rome a body of officials known as “augurs” interpreted bird behavior and only political leaders were allowed to know how the augurs interpreted the omens. The augurs did not have it too bad. They were also priests who presided during Roman fertility rituals.

Finally, from this “auspicious bird watching” comes perhaps the best of all of Shakespeare and certainly the best literary reference ever accorded to sparrows. When Osric brings Hamlet the challenge from Hamlet’s uncle to fence with Laertes, Hamlet is worried and senses that something is wrong. Indeed, something evil is afoot but Hamlet does not know what. Laertes’ sword is poisoned and he intends to kill Hamlet. Hamlet is suspicious and tells his friend Horatio that something is “ ill. . . here about my heart.” Horatio begs Hamlet to pay attention to the omen and not go fence with Laertes. Hamlet’s reply is the reply that we all might like to make in the face of our own deaths:

Not a whit. We defy augury. There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ‘tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is it to leave betimes? Let be.

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