Look out below.

[Note: This column appeared in newspapers in December, 2008.]

Dear Word Detective: What are the origins of the word “inauguration”? — Jackie Davis.

Oh look, a topical question, torn, as the teevee people say, from today’s headlines.  I’m sorry, I don’t do topical questions.  It’s a policy I instituted (inaugurated?) years ago, when I noticed that people only wrote to ask me about “turkey” and “Yuletide” in the two or three days preceding Thanksgiving and Christmas, respectively, leaving me no time at all to write columns that would appear before they became irrelevant.  (Yes, I could have invented my own questions on those topics with time to spare, but apparently I’m not that bright.)  Anyway, we’ll be doing “inauguration” sometime in July, so be sure to check back then.  And now, on to “Jack O’ Lantern”!

Oh, all right.  It’s only every four years, after all.  And “inauguration” is actually a very cool word.  The inauguration at hand is, of course, that of Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States on January 20th, 2009.

The verb “to inaugurate” means, in its original and still primary sense, “to induct into office in a formal ceremony.”  Since “inaugurate” first appeared in English in the 17th century, it has acquired several more general meanings, including “to cause to begin, especially by marking such beginning with a formal announcement or ceremony” (“The Mayor inaugurated the budget cuts by listing his own desk on eBay”), or “to open to the public with a ceremony,” as a community center might be “inaugurated” with a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Presidential inaugurations are occasions of pomp and ceremony, of course, with dignitaries and luminaries as thick on the ground as tourists in Times Square.  But if we were to consider “inauguration” in its original meaning, the pigeons on the roof of the Capitol might be the most important players of the day.  English adopted “inaugurate” from the Latin word “inaugurare,” which also meant “to install in office.”  But the original literal meaning of “inaugurare” was “to foretell the future from the flight of birds.”  The Romans thought it vital that officials not be installed in office until the omens and portents of the future were judged to be favorable, a process that involved watching the flight and feeding patterns of birds (and occasionally examining their entrails).  A Roman “augur” (from “avis,” bird, plus “garrire,” to talk) was a religious official who foretold the future by such means, and we still use “to augur” as a verb to mean “to bode or foretell” (as in “Falling house prices do not augur well for the economy”).

A similar bird-watching trail was followed by the English word “auspice,” (usually found in the plural form “auspices”) meaning “patronage or guidance,” which is based on “avis” plus “specere,” meaning “to look.”

People had pretty much given up looking to birds to foretell the future by the time “inaugurate” appeared in English, although, considering the state of the world at the moment, it may be time to give it another shot.  It’s hard to imagine chickens doing a worse job of running things.

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