In a word: obsequies

The Baltimore Sun

Each week The Sun's John McIntyre presents a relatively obscure but evocative word with which you may not be familiar, another brick to add to the wall of your working vocabulary. This week's word:


Among the documents purloined from the Maryland Historical Society by Barry Landau and Jason Savedoff, and recently returned, is a program, "Funeral Obsequies of the late President Lincoln." The word obsequies, (pronouncd AHB-suh-kweez) for a funeral rite or ceremony, or for a commemorative service at the grave or elsewhere, is very old and has grown fusty in our time. 

The Oxford English Dictionary cites obsequies from Chaucer's "Knight's Tale" in the late fourteenth century. It is lifted directly from the French obseques, ultimately from the Latin word for a funeral, obsequium

Quite a different etymological authority speaks in Twain's Huckleberry Finn, where the inept con man the Dauphin starts talking publicly about funeral orgies. When the Duke, his colleague, tries to surreptitiously correct him, he brazens it out thus: "Obsequies ain't used in England no more now--it's gone out. We say orgies now in England. Orgies is better, because it means the thing you're after more exact. It's a word that's made up out'n the Greek orgo, outside, open, abroad; and the Hebrew jeesum, to plant, cover up; hence inter. So, you see, funeral orgies is an open er public funeral."  

Example: A more recent citation from the American Mercury in 1927: "The current pastor, officiating at the obsequies, remarked this fact in order to warn the faithful."

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad