Church Latin? It’s, ahem, all Greek to me…

My husband and I decided a couple of years ago that we would challenge ourselves to visit every Anglican cathedral in England. I like church history, and churches, and my husband likes that churches are pretty good places for small children to explore safely. We have subsequently visited some of the most beautiful places and buildings in the country and both developed a pedantry around use of the word aisle when nave is meant. As well as the splendour of the buildings, there is plenty of opportunity for exploring language since the church is a vast repository of fascinating and arcane words.

When is a cathedral not a cathedral? When it’s a chair!

First word on my list, then, is Cathedral. We tend to think of Latin as being the language of the church, but this word came into Latin from Greek, as you might have guessed from the very un-Latin presence of a ‘th’ in its middle. Greek — and Latin —  ‘cathedra’ means simply ‘chair’. Lewis and Short (my wonderful Latin dictionary) gives a bit more detail: ‘a chair, a stool, esp. one furnished with cushions and supports for women, an arm chair‘, and then goes on to mention it as a bishop’s chair, amongst other definitions. The chair itself is central to the cathedral since the cathedral is the ‘seat’ of the bishop. My marvellous guide book, The Cathedrals of England, by Batsford and Fry, describes Southwell before it was elevated to cathedral status as ‘the bishop of York’s footstool’, back when it was merely a lowly Minster.


In some cathedrals you are hard pushed to spot the cathedra amongst all the other fascinating paraphernalia, but Chelmsford makes much of its beautiful greenish chair of Westmorland slate. Picture from here.

More see, bishop?

The cathedral is also in English home to the ‘see’ of the bishop, which sounds a bit like seat, but refers more to the job of the bishop.

Bishop sounds English, doesn’t it? What could be more English than taking tea with a bishop? Well, it is a very anglicised word, that’s for sure, but its roots are again Greek. Episcopos is the Greek for bishop, and it means ‘the one who looks out’ — like in periscope or telescope. One of the earliest English christian church leaders was a chap called Benedict Biscop. His name gives us a clue as to how the Greek word episcopos became English bishop. It lost its initial ‘e’, hardened its new initial ‘p’ to ‘b’ and softened its ‘sc’ to ‘sh’. Obvious, really.

But what does a bishop do? Looks out from their seat (cathedra!) over their see — which sounds a lot like seat! — but is to do with looking! — onto their diocese. Whoa, there! What’s a diocese?

What’s a Diocese, sis?

This word also comes to Latin via Greek. Cicero used ‘dioecesis’ to mean an area under a governor’s jurisdiction (I know this from its dictionary entry in Lewis and Short rather than an encyclopaedic knowledge of Cicero, I’m sorry to have to admit). It became an area under a bishop’s jurisdiction with the advent of Christianity. In case you are interested, its Greek roots are ‘di’ (preposition meaning ‘through’) + ‘oikos’ (noun meaning ‘house’), creating ‘dioikein’ meaning ‘to keep house’ or ‘administer’. Why it is pronounced to rhyme with sis is anyone’s guess! Fascinatingly, ‘oikos’ also crops up in the English word ‘economy’, which is also all about keeping your house in order.

Ship ahoy!

Ely, one of the most splendid cathedrals in the country, rising ineffably on its improbable hill from the murky flats of East Anglia, is known as the Ship of the Fens. This word, ship, crops up again in church terminology in the word nave. As I said at the beginning, aficionados of church architecture get a little sweaty about the word nave, because it is not an aisle!! The nave is the main central space up the length of a church. It comes from the Latin ‘navis’, which means ‘ship’. Clearly all churches are ships of faith, steering a course through high seas of unbelievers and allegory, disembarking souls of faithful parishioners at their heavenly destination. The tradition of seeing the Church as a ship is as ancient as the Church itself, as far as I can tell from a quick Google.


The Ship of the Fens: Ely Cathedral on its improbable hill. Photo credit P. Wood.

Aisle have two of those flying ships!

If the nave is not an aisle, then what is? Well, there are usually two aisles in a church, one to the north and one to the south of the nave. They are the wings of the ship! Aisle comes via French from the Latin for wing, ‘ala’. My Shorter OED (Volume 1) tells me (via the abbreviation ‘conf.’) that it is spelt funny on account of someone once upon a time having confused it with with the word ‘isle’, island, whilst simultaneously thinking about the French world ‘aile’, meaning ‘wing’.

I really could go on and on with this subject — there’s the font (Latin ‘fons’, a spring), the altar (Latin ‘altus’, high), the transept, the triforium and clerestory and the word church itself to name a few, but I think I might save those for another fascinating instalment of ‘Charlie Loves Dictionaries!’