In a Word: Haruspicy

January 03, 2011|By John McIntyre, The Baltimore Sun

Each week, The Sun's John McIntyre presents a moderately obscure but evocative word with which you may not be familiar -- another brick to add to the wall of your working vocabulary. Use it in a sentence in a comment on his blog, You Don't Say, and the best sentence will be featured next week.

This week's word: HARUSPICY

At the beginning of a year we are particularly given to pondering the future, trying to discern what it holds for us. And our various professionals -- economists glibly forecasting prosperity or doom, journalists and politicians calculating the odds for presidential candidates in an election nearly two years off -- exercise their specialties.

Foretelling the future -- divination -- has always had its classes of experts practicing specialized techniques, one of which is haruspicy (pronounced ha-ROOS-pi-see), the interpretation of omens by examining the entrails of sacrificial animals. The Roman official who plied this trade was a haruspex. (If you want, say an haruspex, but I'm not going into that issue here.)

The word comes from the roots haru, entrails, and specere, look at.

The Romans had another official proficient in divination, the augur, who observed natural phenomena, particularly the behavior of birds, to determine divine approval or disapproval of a particular action. The omen thus determined is an augury.

Example: It is a great pity that the original Star Trek never found an occasion for Dr. McCoy to say, "Dammit, Jim, I'm a doctor, not a haruspex."

To readers: John McIntyre is going to be on vacation for a couple of weeks. This feature will resume when he returns.

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