The Grammarphobia Blog

House of wax

Q: I’ve heard a fascinating (or perhaps too fascinating?) origin story about the word “sincere.” In 17th-century France, the story goes, some sculptors used wax to adulterate the metals in which they worked. A sculpture made of unadulterated metal was said to be “without wax”—sans cire in French. Hence the English “sincere.”

A: This is another of those linguistic legends that make etymologists’ hair stand on end. The word “sincere” has no such origin, but the myth, in one form or another, has been causing bad-hair days for hundreds of years.

“Sincere,” first recorded in English in the 1530s, is from the Latin word sincerus, meaning “clean, pure, sound, etc.,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The first syllable of the Latin sincerus does not mean “without.” As the OED says, it may be equivalent to the first syllable in simplus, in which sim means “one.”

But that old “without wax” myth has lived on—and on and on. We’ve found versions of it dating back to the early 1600s. One of the more recent incarnations comes from Dan Brown’s thriller Digital Fortress (2008):

“During the Renaissance, Spanish sculptors who made mistakes while carving expensive marble often patched their flaws with cera—‘wax.’ A statue that had no flaws and required no patching was hailed as a ‘sculpture sin cera’ or a ‘sculpture without wax.’ The phrase eventually came to mean anything honest or true. The English word ‘sincere’ evolved from the Spanish sin cera—‘without wax.’ ”

Though all the stories claim in the end that “sincere” comes from “without wax,” the details vary widely. Sometimes the people trying to disguise flaws in stone were ancient Greek quarrymen, sometimes Roman sculptors, construction workers, or architects.

In at least one version, the flawed goods were pieces of pottery that wouldn’t hold water unless they were secretly repaired with wax. In another, we’re told that a biblical injunction (“Be thou sincere!”) literally means “Be without wax.”

Yet another version, from the early 1900s, claims that “in the days when they began to make furniture,” dishonest cabinet makers used wax to hide the knots and cracks in inferior wood.

A gullible writer in 1870 passed this one along: “In old times, people used to write notes to each other, and tie a string around them, and seal the ends of the string with wax. When friends were intimate, and open-hearted toward each other, they folded the letter, and, leaving off the string and wax simply wrote the word ‘sincere.’ ” Hence, he wrote, the Latin for “without wax” became the English word “sincere.”

But the oldest versions of the myth claim that vendors of honey in the markets of ancient Rome cried “sine cera” to assure buyers that their honey was pure and free from wax.

Here, for example, is the explanation offered by John Gill in A Complete Body of Doctrinal and Practical Divinity:, Vol. 3 (1796): “The Latin word sincerus, from whence our English word sincere, is composed of sine & cera; and signifies without wax; as pure honey, which is not mixed with any wax.”

And here’s a definition of “sincere” from a religious dictionary published in 1661: “Sincere is that which is without mixture, as hony without wax.”

Believe it or not, there are still other versions, but you get the idea. As the OED says, “There is no probability in the old explanation [from] sine cera ‘without wax.’ ”

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