Bill Long 2/5/05
We have seen so far that we need to take care how we construe the roots beginning with "asp." Some of them might even be poisonous! By the way, the OED attests the use of "aspish" and "aspine" to mean "pertaining to asps; snaky." The citations it gives, however, suggest the notion of poisonous and not simply "snaky." So, "aspish" behavior would be something that poisons the environment. "Just as the parties were about the reach an agreement, she entered and, with an aspish comment, got the parties riled up again." If someone is not simply a jerk, but a jerk whose effect on a process or group is a poisonous one, we might call that person an "asphole." Or, we could say that they were a "pine" in the "asp." When you are committed to the basic notion that the OED and other unabridged dictionaries are only the "first draft" of the language, you can finally begin to use the language as a living thing and see where it leads you.
We have seen that asper is the basic term, meaning rough or harsh, while aspermous means impotence and asperne means to disdain and reject. Asperse carries us to a different pictorial world, that of sprinkling liquid on someone else. It can be done in a "holy" way to purify, as we will soon see, or it can be done so as to sully or stain.
Understanding the Root of Asperse/Aspersion
The Latin verb underlying asperse is "aspergo." The OLD lists a handful of definitions of the term, but they all revolve around two points. First, It means to besprinkle someone or splash something on someone. It need not be water. Light can "splash" on something. Second, it means to cast a slur on, to inflict harm on or to stain or sully someone with disgrace or insults. Thus, it can mean to besprinkle (in a positive way) or besmirch (negatively). "Aspergo" is made up of "ad" and "spargo" and literally means to scatter something "in the direction of" ("ad") something/someone. When "d" of the prefix and "s" come together in Latin, the "d" either becomes an "s" or drops out altogether. If a person is really incompetent or a jerk about learning how to connect Latin prefixes to roots, we might call him an adshole.
Spargo means to scatter in drops or to sow or scatter seed or money or presents. Branches of trees can spread themselves, and we can cast our eyes on someone using the word "spargo." The fourth principle part of spargo is "sparsum," from which we get our words relating to "sparse." Therefore, something that is "sparse" is, literally, something that is "scattered," and not something that is necessarily rare. Both Latin and English have the word sparsim, an adverb, meaning "here and there," "in various places," or "sparsely."
Focusing on Asperse
The Latin word aspergo gave rise to the English verbs asperge, asperse and related words. Let's begin first of all with the sprinkling or scattering of water or something beneficial. In his 19th century book on primitive cultures, the great anthropologist E.B. Tylor could speak of mourners returning from a Roman funeral "aspersed with water and stepping over fire," and thus purified by the ritual.
The notion of purification by water was too good for the emerging Roman Catholic Church to ignore. Baptism, of course, was the initiation rite into this new religion, and it claimed to purify a person from the taint of original sin. Sprinkling by baptism could be referred to as aspersion. But, more important was the ritual of "asperges" that developed. According to the Century Dictionary, it was "an antiphon, taken from the Miserere, intoned by the celebrant and sung by the choir before the solemn mass on Sundays, during which the priest sprinkles with holy water the altar, clergy and people." And, the biblical passage intoned when this sprinkling took place? Why, none other than Ps. 51. Let's hear the Latin of that passage (actually listed as Ps. 50 in the Vulgate). Oh, by the way, the first word of the Psalm is "Miserere" ("Have mercy"); hence the name in the Catholic liturgy.
"Asparges me hysopo et mundabor/ lavabis me et super nivem dealbabor ." Ps. 51:9.
"Sprinkle me with hyssop and I shall be clean; wash me and I shall become whiter than snow."
With such a clear and vivid use of the term, it is not unexpected that many English words grew up derived from aspergo. Just think about it for a moment. You could throw water at people with your hands, but the best thing to do might be for someone to develop a little device that enables water to be thrown--so that people can get wet but not too wet, as it were. Someone at some time thus made the aspergillum. The aspergillum is a "brush or metallic instrument used by the priest in Roman Catholic churches for sprinkling holy water." It could also be called an aspergill or an asperge, though the latter term was also the verb "to sprinkle." Something that is aspergilliform is shaped like this metallic instrument, which has a rounded, perforated head and a long, slender stem. We might want to refer to a baby's aspergilliform rattle, though I am sure that this term would leave everyone high and dry.
And, you have to get the water from someplace, don't you? For that purpose you have an aspersorium, defined as "a holy water-stoup or font." Pagans as well as early Christians had their aspersoria. And the act itself of sprinkling people is called asperging. "After asperging the people, he preached to them."
Let's now turn to the more negative connotations flowing from aspergo.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long