Daily Archives: November 30, 2009


Oh dear. Whatever this word means, it can’t be auspicious.

Well, that’s true. The prophecies of an auspex are auspicious. A haruspex is haruspical and practices haruspicy.

But while we could have a bird with auspex, do we have the guts for haruspex? Really?

It’s a scary-looking word – somehow its echoes of harum-scarum become hairier and scarier and lead us to helter-skelter and the desultory becomes downright demonic. We can see a hex peeking around the edges, and if the harus becomes Harry and pex turns Potter, we are brought to mind of horcrux. Not all h__x words are baleful – helix has a lifegiving glow to it – but the harrowing horror of haru and the spiteful spell of spex (which also brings to mind weak vision) may move it all well beyond the harumphing and expectorating its sound could at first call forth.

But can you divine its referent? Well, its referent can divine. Give a haruspex a critter – be it fowl or a fair sheep – and he will, once it has been sacrificed, read the tales its entrails tell. Sheep liver in particular was an important indicator for the Etruscans and the Romans that followed them as well as, earlier, for Babylonians and Hittites. Haruspex has the spex ending from spicere, “observe,” and a beginning cognate with Sanskrit hira “entrails.” (Does the word somehow resemble a string of guts pulled from an x incision?) Add one haruspex to the next and you have two haruspices. But you will not find them adding herbs and spices as they look at the liver. (Divination specifically by the liver is also called hepatoscopy, which may sound like a laparoscopic inspection of your liver, but you may wish to flee in your hospital robe if your doctor muses aloud about doing one.)

Haruspicy was useful for weather forecasts and medical diagnoses and prognoses (the more relevant, one might imagine, if one caught one’s disease from the sheep now dissected). Haruspicy did not necessarily lean on the spicy or find the sex in haruspex; it answered quotidian questions of the sort you and I are more likely to turn to the web for – and not the web of the digits of a goose or ewe, but a digital web that can make a goose of you.

And if, instead of gutting the goose, you let it fly, well, the goose may find that auspicious, and if you call the auspex, so will you – an auspex (from avis “bird” and spicere “observe”) divined the future by means of the flights of birds (auspices, in the oldest sense), and from this we get auspicious. Mind you, if you’re on Otmoor observing starlings, you may find the results startling!