The Grammarphobia Blog

How sacred is sanctity?

Q: A recent New York Times article referred to “the sanctity” of a prosecutor’s obligation to disclose helpful information to the defense. This misuse of “sanctity” is pervasive and a product of our culture’s cavalier relationship with the divine. Interestingly, I never see “sacred” similarly misused. Thank you for your interest.

A: It’s been my experience that the words “sanctity,” “sacred,” and “sacrosanct” are commonly used loosely or figuratively, often in a satirical way (as in “Copy editors maintain the sanctity of proper punctuation,” or “Mom believed that cleanliness was a sacred trust”).

But sometimes, as you’ve noticed, the use of such terms becomes routine, with no humor intended. This practice, too, has a long history – particularly with the word “sacred.”

“Sanctity,” which was first recorded in English circa 1394, has its origins in the Latin sanctitas, from sanctus (“holy”), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The first meaning of “sanctity” was holiness or saintliness, the OED says, and that’s still pretty much the literal meaning of the word. Yet it and its variations are often used figuratively in a humorous sense. Just think of “sanctimonious.”

“Sacred” has a more interesting history. It began around the year 1225 with the verb “sacre,” meaning to “consecrate (the elements, or the body and blood of Christ) in the Mass,” the OED says.

Later, to “sacre” was to celebrate the Eucharist; to sacrifice; to worship; to consecrate a king, bishop, or the like into office; to unite in the sacrament of marriage; to hallow, bless, sanctify, and so on.

The verb “sacre” was used in this way until well into the 17th century.

Similarly, someone or something that underwent this process was said to have been “sacred,” because “sacred” was the past participle of the verb “sacre.”

Here’s an example from 1606: “Rodolph the second, eldest son of Maximilian, was sacred Emperour in the yeare 1577.”

As the participle “sacred” grew weaker over the years, the OED explains, it was gradually replaced by the adjective “sacred,” which first appeared in 1380 and is the equivalent of the Latin sacer.

The original meaning of the adjective was “consecrated” in the religious sense (that is, dedicated to a sacred purpose).

It often appeared in the phrase “sacred to,” meaning, the OED says, “consecrated to; esteemed especially dear or acceptable to a deity.” Examples: “sacred unto Jupiter” (circa 1430), and “sacred to Venus” (1874).

But the adjective “sacred” has long been used in a figurative sense meaning “regarded with or entitled to respect or reverence similar to that which attaches to holy things,” according to the OED.

This usage has been recorded in print steadily since 1560, when John Daus translated the Latin in tam augusto conventu as “in so sacred a senate.”

Later, Shakespeare, in Henry VI, Part 1 (1588-1590) wrote: “He … Doth but usurpe the Sacred name of Knight, Prophaning this most Honourable Order.”

Over the years, figurative uses of “sacred” even took on a sarcastic tone, as in these lines from Shelley’s Oedipus Tyrannus (1820): “And these most sacred nether promontories / Lie satisfied with layers of fat.” And: “That her most sacred Majesty / Should be Invited to attend the feast of Famine.”

Here’s another sarcastic example from an essay by Matthew Arnold (1865): “To obtain from Mr. Bentham’s executors a sacred bone of his great, dissected Master.”

Today, we often hear “sacred” used in a nonreligious way. One definition of the word, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), is “worthy of respect, venerable.”

Here are some related words that began life as religions terms and are now freely used in nonreligious contexts: “sanctuary” (originally a consecrated place); “sanctum” (ditto); “to sanction” (to make holy); “sacrifice” (an offering, usually a slaughtered animal, to a deity); and even “sacrum” (the last bone of the spine, originally “holy bone”).

You may regard figurative or nonreligious uses of terms like these “cavalier,” but the process seems to be natural and well established.

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