When bad words go good: passion

17 Nov

Katie Fontas

Katie has a passion for etymologies.

There is something so incredibly simple about the etymology of the word “passion”  that it seems useless to delve into it. The word is of Latin origin at the very core. It comes from the verb patior, whose three principal parts (parts of the verb used in various grammatical situations) are patior, pati, passus. As you can see, passion comes from that third principle part. Done.

However, there’s something much more interesting than that at work. The word patior doesn’t mean to love or to desire or to feel intense emotions. In fact, it conveys nearly the opposite idea. You might have noticed how similar the word looks to the English word “patience”. That would be because patience is also etymologically linked to patior. So what do patience and passion have in common?

According to my Collins Latin dictionary, patior can be defined as “to suffer, experience; to submit to; to allow, put up with”. It is even thought that this Latin work is linked to the Greek word pema, meaning suffering or woe. Although it is true that sometimes passionate love is poetically described as causing pain and suffering, it seems not to make sense that a word we look to as being very positive and very active could come from a word that is very negative and implies extreme passivity. In fact, the word “passive” itself comes from patior’s third principle part, passus.

 In the late 12th to 13th century, passion still retained its original meaning of suffering and endurance as we can see from the notion of the “Passion of the Christ” (which now is more commonly known as a Mel Gibson movie). For those unfamiliar, the idea of the Passion is that Jesus suffered so as to relieve everyone of sins. My theory for the switch in meaning of the word comes from this very phrase. The Christian Church became famous for its descriptions of Jesus as a caring, loving type who did all that he did out of devotion to mankind. Take a look at that phrase again: “Passion of the Christ”. Both definitions of passion suddenly make sense. Suffering of the Christ. Intense Love of the Christ. They both encompass everything that the church was preaching. In people’s minds, the idea of suffering and love were suddenly linked. So by the 14th century, passion was already synonymous with emotion and love.

From then on, the modern definition grew from a very standard progression. First it started appearing as a word for sexual desire around 1580 and then gained the meaning of strong liking or enthusiasm around 1630. In a combination of all of these definitions, passion became not only a word for intense love for someone, but also for something. But regardless of what it is referring to, passion will always be a word full of deep, strong meaning.


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