Who is this man in white? A plaintiff, a caitiff, Hiram Abiff? A bailiff, a mastiff, a hippogriff? A sheriff with a tariff for a whiff of spliff? Nope. It’s the pope.

That’s what pontiff means? ‘Pope’? Almost. Pontiff means ‘That’s the pope and I’m a journalist’. Journalists have it hammered into them that they must not say the same word over and over again. “Elegant variation,” y’know? So to avoid saying pope over and over again, they say pontiff over and over again.

It’s like those people who latch onto some counterculture clique so they can be themselves, just like all the other people who are being themselves the same way. I’m put in mind of a writer I worked with once who fancied herself a great journalist – in spite of being neither – who objected to my changing impacted to affected because impacted was her style. Really? That’s your style? You couldn’t find a better one to hitch your wagon to?

Pontiff sounds somehow “official,” like a committee (or like the word committee). It’s newsy. Sort of like temblor, another word that only news story scribblers use, or tawny gourd, a way of avoiding saying pumpkin twice. These words are in a similar register to the announcements the management in my condo building posts in the elevators: “The cleaning of the lobby floors will commence starting Tuesday. Please exercise caution when walking.” Oversized and starchy and not quite the right colour… Pontiff is a tawny gourd of a word.

Where did this word even come from? From Latin pontifex (which is also the Twitter handle of the pope). The generally accepted etymology is from ponti, a combining form of pons ‘bridge’, and fex, a combining form of facere ‘make’. So a pontifex is a bridge-builder, by this account.

But not literally. The term was originally used for any of a variety of high priests. It ultimately came to be narrowed down to the Bishop of Rome – the pope, who is currently Pope Francis. (Note that it’s Pope capitalized as a title, but pope lower-cased as a descriptor.) I’m sure that the press popularity of pontifex has in part to do with its starting with po as pope does. The words aren’t related, though; pope traces back to Greek παπᾶς, papas, which means… “papa.” You know, “daddy.” The pope is a father-figure.

Well, that’s the idea, anyway. Call him pontiff and he sounds more like an official from a committee… someone with double letters in his title. More legal. Legalistic. But especially journalistic.

14 responses to “pontiff

  1. I love it.

    Thanks, James 🙂


  2. Pingback: Pontiff! | Blogging 101: Alumni

  3. We have a small forum to help new WordPress bloggers where we share feedback, tips and tools. I have shared this article there and commented:

    “James harbeck’s blog is a treasure tove for all etymology enthusiasts and word buffs. He has a unique style and he is a walking encyclopedia. I had the good fortune of doing a guest post on his blog in 2012.

    I am sharing this article for all of you who like words. You can visit his blog and follow him for tasting wonderful words.”


    Anand 🙂

    • Thanks!

      Fancy doing another guest post sometime?

      • It will be my pleasure James, I would have to think about a nice word to match standards of your blog though 🙂 🙂

        I also do a Friday feature on my blog which I call “Wordy Friday Nerdy.” I would love if you could do a post someday. I also plan on doing an interview as a feature and I would be honored if you would accept it maybe someday in next few months?
        Have a nice day!
        Anand 🙂

      • I would be happy to oblige, and thanks! Do you still have my email?

      • Hello James,
        Thanks a lot. I have sent you a mail. Hope to continue conversation 🙂
        Hope you are having a lovely weekend.
        Love and light ❤
        Anand 🙂

  4. Anand’s typo may not be a typo at all….

    According to Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia Tove (Danish pronunciation: [toːʋə], Swedish pronunciation: [tuːvɛ]) is a Scandinavian given name which derives from the Old Norse name Tófa, a shortening of Thorfrithr, “beautiful Thor” or “peace of Thor.”[1][2][3] Tove is mostly a female name but occasionally masculine.[4] Tove is also an alternative English spelling of the Hebrew female name that is more commonly spelled Tovah or Tova.

    Tove is a legendary young woman, mistress of the Danish King Waldemar, and subject of a poem by Jens Peter Jacobsen best known for its musical setting as the Gurre-Lieder of Arnold Schoenberg.
    a fictional, slithy creature created by Lewis Carroll that appears in his poem Jabberwocky.
    High Tove, a mountain in the English Lake District
    River Tove, tributary of the River Great Ouse in England.
    TOVE Project, an ontology for modelling enterprises.

    I can quite see that your blog could be likened to a mountain in the beautiful Lake District but some people might think it a bit over the top!

    (Only having fun Anand – I agree with you. James Harbeck really is ‘the last word’ in wordsmithery!)

  5. There is a parallel with premier for Prime Minister; another bit of journalese which one never hears in ordinary speech. Though this kind of over-conspicuous avoidance of repetition does rankle a little sometimes, I think a mid-point must be found between it and the extreme parsimony promoted by Orwell (and too often approvingly quoted) in his Politics and the English Language. Eschewing* the political euphemism is fine, but the Orwellian approach would have us all writing drab, colourless prose that might be informatively transparent, but joyless to read.

    * To circumvent** the repetition of avoidance.
    ** Oh. I had better stop. An infinite regress this way lies…

    • In Canada, premier is the head of a provincial parliament – the equivalent of American governor – while prime minister is the national-level counterpart. So any time an American newspaper calls the prime minister of Canada the premier, as I have seen done, they’re flat-out wrong.

  6. Pingback: distaff | Sesquiotica

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  8. Pingback: gubernatorial | Sesquiotica

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