Mind your language

‘Augury’ is to do with birds? That’s a flight of fancy

13 April 2019

9:00 AM

13 April 2019

9:00 AM

Was the cascade of water that made the Commons suspend its sitting an omen or augury? When I asked that in conversation last week, a friend of my husband said that ‘strictly speaking’, augury is to do with divination from the behaviour of birds. I’ve since discovered that even more strictly speaking, it isn’t.

Dear old Isidore of Seville reckoned that auspices are avium aspicia, examination of birds. Augury, he says, is one kind of such divination, since auguria comes from avium garria, ‘chattering of birds’, or else augurium comes from avegerium, because aves gerunt, birds reveal.  Sir Thomas Browne, who lived 1,000 years later, warns against Isidore because, though he wrote an ‘accurate’ work on etymology, he also gave the ‘received natures’ of things he mentions, assenting to ‘common opinions and authors which have delivered them’.


Yet Isidore’s great value was in handing on the storehouse of common knowledge from antiquity, and the funny thing about Browne is his delight in the ‘vulgar errours’ catalogued in his Pseudodoxia Epidemica. Whether by onychomancy (divination from fingernails), rhabdomancy (by rods) or belomancy (by the falling of arrows), Browne thought that the devil had ‘deluded many Nations in his Auguriall and Extispicious inventions’. He usually gives a clue to an unusual word such as extispicious by using it in a doublet with one more familiar. Extispicious comes from the Latin extum, ‘entrails’.

But augury has nothing to do with birds etymologically. The practitioner of divination of whatever kind was called in Latin augur, from augere, ‘to grow’. As for the haruspex, who divined signs from entrails, his title is related to harpsichord — the element chord like haru- derives from a Proto-Indo-European root ghere, meaning ‘gut’, which also gives us yarn and hernia.

By the way, when looking up Isidore in the helpful translation by Priscilla Throop, I found the chattering of birds printed as chartering of birds. Looking up augury in the Oxford English Dictionary (an entry revised in 2017), I found, not divining,  but ‘diving from the flight of birds’. The vulgar errors of our age are in execution as much as misconception.

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