English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Is a chant enchanting, or cant?

Q: After seeing a Puerto Rican license plate with the motto Isla del Encanto, a thought struck me: encantocantar, and that of course led me to “enchantment” … “chant.” Are all these words related?

A: Yes, they’re all ultimately derived from canere, a Latin verb meaning to sing, and its frequentative, cantare. A frequentative is a verb form indicating repeated action.

In Spanish, as you know, encanto means enchantment, while cantar means to sing, but let’s look at the two English words, “enchantment” and “chant.”

When “enchantment” showed up in the late 13th century, it referred to a magic spell. The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the Chronicle (1297), Robert of Gloucester’s account of British, English, and Norman history:

“A clerk þoru enchantement hym bi gan to telle” (in modern English, “A cleric through enchantment begins to tell him”).

The OED says English adopted “enchantment” from the Old French enchantement, but the ultimate source is the Latin incantare (in-, upon, plus cantare, to sing). With the addition of the prefix, the verb meant to chant a magic spell upon someone, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

It wasn’t until the 17th century that the noun “enchantment” took on the figurative sense of “alluring or overpowering charm,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest example of the new usage is from Hudibras (1678), a satirical narrative poem by Samuel Butler: “Th’ Inchantment of her Riches.”

When the verb “chant” showed up in the late 14th century, it meant simply to sing. No magic here.

The earliest example in the OED is from “The Miller’s Tale” in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (circa 1390):

Herestow noght Absolon / That chaunteth thus vnder oure boures wal” (“Don’t you hear Absalom chant this way under our bedroom wall?”).

The noun “chant” meant a song or melody when it showed up in Milton’s Paradise Regained (1671): Chaunt of tuneful Birds.”

It didn’t take on its religious sense of a simple melody in a psalm, canticle, or dirge until the late 18th century.

The OED‘s first citation is from Charles Burney’s General History of Music (1789): The Chants, or Canto Fermo, to some of the hymns of the Romish church.”

We have cantare and incantare to thank for many other terms, including “canticle” (1250), “enchantress” (about 1380), “incantation” (1390), “enchant” (bewitch, 1377; delight, 1593), “cantor” (before 1552), “enchanting” (magical, 1555; charming, circa 1607), and “cantata” (1724).

As for “cant,” in its jargony, insincere, or sanctimonious senses, the usage is probably derived from cantare, but the etymology is fuzzy.

Those senses of “cant” developed in the 16th, 17th, and early 18th centuries, first as a verb and later as a noun.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says, “It is usually assumed that the usage derives from an ironic transference of the singing of church congregations or choirs to the wheedling ‘song’ of beggars.”

The OED points out that the Latin cantare and its Romance offshoots “were used contemptuously in reference to the church services” as early as the late 12th century.

The dictionary notes that Thomas Harman, a 16th-century writer, suggested that the usage might have been influenced by the language of religious mendicants or the jargon of itinerants.

Oxford also cites theories that “cant” may be derived from the Irish and Gaelic word cainnt, or from the name of Andrew Cant or his son Alexander Cant, Presbyterian ministers in the 17th century.

However, the OED generally supports the idea that the noun “cant” comes from cantus, a derivative of cantare.

“This and its accompanying verb presumably represent Latin cantus singing, song, chant,” the dictionary says, but adds, “the details of the derivation and development of sense are unknown.”

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