Every day, it seems, I find myself looking up words and their etymologies, trying to get at the root of what something I've just read means. Sometimes it's a word in the Bible, and I end up wading my way through ancient languages I've never studied, searching for clues. Other times it's just words from daily life that suddenly pertain to some matter I'm struggling with or considering. Often the word has changed over the centuries; I find such words particularly fascinating—particularly when, as is often the case, the word's current meaning is at odds with what it once meant. Some of these word studies find their way into my writing projects. My goal is to post new words weekly, sometimes brand new material and sometimes excerpts from my books.

29 December 2010


One of my most pernicious sins—aside from plain old meanness, to which I'm prone from time to time and for which I have myriad rationalizations, which I won't go into just now, though I'm tempted—is sanctimony. Defined in most dictionaries as feigned piety or righteousness, the word has nothing to do with pretense in my private lexicon. Rather, it is the overwhelming sense of my own moralness, often in the face of someone else's misery or despair.

I will lay it before you. When confronting a tragedy of some unknown unfortunate, my default inner response appears to be not pity or compassion or even that most generous of pomposities, indifference. Instead, a sticky, unswallowable sanctimonious ooze of fills me, collecting like snot in my sinuses in the night. However arduously my soul within me moves and twists, however hard I gasp for a breath of genuine love, sanctimony oozes and seeps, filling the passageways of the spirit and choking me with the unlovable lovelessness of thinking others’ miseries earned and myself—for not being like that—holy by comparison.

The word sanctimony is a strange one. In English, it is used almost exclusively in its adjective form, sanctimonious. Etymologically, it derives from the Latin cognate sānctimōnia, which means, simply, sanctity or holiness. The English word sanctimonious was used that way for many centuries, until it acquired, notably via Shakespeare in Measure for Measure, its current disparaging sense as not sanctity but hypocritical sanctity, not holiness but holiness feigned, not righteousness but a show of righteousness.

Many words that once denoted sanctity have become similarly disparaged in contemporary usage, but sanctimonious is the worst of all. Few these days like to be called "pious" or "righteous," but none want to be called "sanctimonious."

And rightly so, I would argue. The sense of one’s own relative holiness is poison to every holy impulse. And hypocrisy seems lamentably inherent in every conscious holy act.

Nor is sanctimony constrained to those who wcall themselves Christians. Many of my nonbelieving friends and acquaintances wax sanctimonious in matters of social justice or green living or animal rights or whatever happen to be their personal holinesses.

As for my own sanctimony, I wish there were some solvent to dissolve it or at least break it up some and let it sink below my breathways to join the other wastes I produce until the glorious day when it all passes from me entirely.