For the Love of Words: A [Guest] Sabbath Meditation on “Hospitality”

True story: When I come across a piece of information I don’t know, I shrug my shoulders and say, “Gee, that’d be nice to know.” And then I go about my business. I am married to someone, however, who can’t not look something up. Even if we don’t get home for many hours, the first thing he’ll do when we walk through the door is run to the computer. This afternoon, like many others, I found myself listening to J reading to me from an online etymology dictionary. Today, though, it was some pretty darn cool stuff, perfect for Texas Schmexas. So here’s a Sabbath-meditation-qua-guest-post-Sunday, courtesy of Jonathan, that delves into the meaning of hospitality.

I love words.

I love learning them, using them, reading them, hearing them, parsing them, punning on them, and generally playing with them.  They’re such deceptively slippery little things.  They seem as simple and uncomplicated as a pointing finger: this word points to this one thing, and nothing else.  But it is as if the finger has a shady past and a doubtful reputation, so while it points at one simple thing, if you pay attention closely enough you find that it is always pointing at other things too, and sometimes almost exactly opposite things.

And that shady past is one of the things that makes them such good playmates, for they always mean rather more than they just mean.  For example, in Sunday school today we were talking about hospitality, and I started wondering what root connected hospital, and hospice, and hospitality, etc.  So I came home and looked it up in the online etymology dictionary and in the OED, and those words have a mightily convoluted past.  The sacramental wonder, though, is the way in which their deep and twisting roots still suck up living water to succor the many leaves above.  But perhaps it would be easiest to pick up this pot by the other handle.

Once upon a time, there was an innocent little Latin word (which had its own roots, of course, but let’s start at this point), which no one knows anymore, but which probably was something like hostis (there’s some disagreement on this, but go with me here).  This little Latin word then spawned several different major trunks, including hostis, hospitem, and hostia.

Hostis just meant something like “host, guest, stranger, or foreigner,” all at once.  Okay, maybe it wasn’t a very innocent little word.  But anyway, stick with me here.  So in one form, hostis morphed through French into English and became a host, meaning a large body of warlike individuals or army.  The trunk of hospitem, which literally means “lord of strangers” shifted through Old French and New French while losing the ‘h’ and the ‘em,’ then picked up the ‘h’ again on reentry into Modern English, and now gives us host, meaning someone who receives guests (guest is from the Germanic side, for those who love words as much as I do, and also originally meant both host and guest and stranger and enemy… pretty cool, huh?).  And finally, hostia meant victim or sacrifice (coming from the enemy or foreigner aspect of the word, like the army bit), and in late Latin and French became a technical ecclesial term for the Body of Christ served during the Eucharist: the Host.

Whew!  If you’ve stuck with me this far, here comes the payoff.

So this one original Latin word meaning enemy, stranger, host, and guest morphed through three different French words and late Latin words to become again one English word, host, with three different meanings: one who receives and cares for guests, the honored strangers in our midst; a massive number, as of an army (or the angels, as when we speak of the Lord of Hosts); and the Body of Christ in the Eucharist.

And here is where these slippery little things with their fingers pointing in every direction are unbelievably cool: these ideas all go together.

Christ is indeed the host of the Communion table, shared universally in a host of places and yet only one, the victim of this sacrifice made on our behalf, and the Lord of Strangers, enemies and foreigners made honored guests by this Host.

I love words.


4 comments on “For the Love of Words: A [Guest] Sabbath Meditation on “Hospitality”

  1. Liz's dad says:

    Love it! Great juxtaposition of meanings.

  2. ryan says:

    how about hostile? same root? related to host (as in, horde?) if so, that is really interesting that hostile and hospitable come from the same root. while there was already some (to us) contradictory uses in hostis, as those branches beget fruit, the evolution moves them even farther apart.

  3. J says:

    Indeed, yes! Hostile came from ‘hostilis,’ meaning ‘of an enemy,’ which came from ‘hostis,’ ‘enemy.’ Oh, and ‘ghost’ is a another word from the same root as ‘guest’! Which is also kind of fun. It is very interesting to me that they had such contrary meanings in these original words, but I’m sure that it is a matter of usage. It was fairly typical in all early languages that stranger, alien, and enemy all were more or less the same thing (basic languages are apparently about as discerning as dogs: known is friend, unknown is enemy). But if we remember how important it was in early cultures that you show proper hospitality and care of anyone under your roof, we can see why, for them, it made sense that the same word would have shades of honored friend as well as enemy and stranger; of course, they always had different words for the good friends that you have known and loved for a long time. In the ancient world, to be unknown was to be honored, feared, respected, and cared for in about equal measures! You are right, though: it is intriguing how, as we get further away from that time, we simplify things: you are either hospitable or hostile, a friend or an enemy, and there is no longer any room for these ideas to go together. Maybe this says something about our simplification of ideas? A normal, ‘nice’ person treats everyone in the world indifferently (caring for them only under extreme circumstances, and otherwise more (in NY) or less (in a small town) ignoring them, except for the very small circle of friends and, perhaps, enemies). The ancient world had almost no one to whom you were indifferent.

    To go back to an earlier idea that I know you are interested in (and to tie this all to Christ), we can remember that if we consider God as the sublime, we should indeed approach with fear and trembling the Host: Christ is to be feared as well as to be assumed (and consumed), and so he is the unknown Host. We must approach, but we dare not do it lightly!

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