Word of the Week: augur

augur (verb) To predict or foretell, especially from signs or omens.

Every delegate found a copy of that letter under his door the next morning; this generated wild rumors, huge resentments, a divided convention, a divided Republican Party, and a augured a defeat in November.

~ William F. Buckley, Jr.

The Lexicon, A cornucopia of wonderful words for the inquisitive word lover

This is an old word that I arguably first appreciated when I encountered it in my Latin historiography class on Livy’s history of Rome (a very long volume of 142 books, only 35 of which we still have today, and for which ancient Romans created “Cliff Notes” versions, summarizing each book).  For example, in the following excerpt, Romulus and Remus have just defeated their murderous grandfather, Numitor, and went to a sacred place to discern signs of the will of heaven:

Priori Remo augurium venisse fertur, sex voltures; iamque nuntiato augurio cum duplex numerus Romulo se ostendisset, utrumque regem sua multitudo consalutauerat: tempore illi praecepto, at hi numero auium regnum trahebant.

Livy, Chapter 7, Book I

The Latin Library, Latinlibrary.com

If your Latin is a little rusty (or non-existent), I will give you T. J. Luce’s translation of the passage on page 10, from the Oxford World’s Classics series,  Books 1-5:

To Remus augury came first, legend says: six vultures.  After this had been reported to the people, double the number appeared for Romulus.  Accordingly, the supporters of each man hailed their candidate as king, one side claiming sovereignty because of the priority of time, the other because of the number of birds.

C. T. Lewis, in his Elementary Latin Dictionary (the small one that fits in your book bag), provides the following definitions:

augurium, i, m. [augur], the observance of omens, interpretation of omens, divination, augury

augurius, adj. [augur], of an augur, of the profession of augur

auguro, avi, atus, are [augur],   to act as augur, take the auguries of, consult by augury

auguror, atus sum, ari, dep. [augur], to act as augur, augur, predict, foretell

These particular signs are generally observed in the activity (flight, singing, feeding; occasionally in sacrificed avian entrails) of birds, as in the case of Romulus and Remus to whom vultures appear while they are in a sacred location.  Different birds might suggest a different divine patron.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), explains the Latin words by suggesting Latin roots: avis (bird) + gar from Latin words garrire (to talk) and garrulus (talkative).  It is always difficult to precisely dig up origins for buried words, so origins are often left in the realm of speculation.  The OED identifies several words from the same derivation with related meanings in the English language:

  • Augur, n., first appears in 1549
  • Augur, v., first appears in 1601
  • Augural, adj., first appears in 1598
  • Augurate, v., (meaning to predict from omens), first appears in 1741
  • *Augurate, v., (meaning to perform the duties of augury), first appears in 1678
  • *Auguration, n., (meaning the practice of prognostication by means of augury), first appears in 1569
  • Augured, ppl. a., (meaning foretold, foreseen, anticipated)
  • *Augurer, n., first appeared in 1400
  • Augurial, adj., first appeared in 1646
  • Auguring, ppl. a., first appeared in 1606
  • *Augurism, n., first appeared in 1590
  • *Augurist, n., first appeared in 1630
  • *Augurize, v., first appeared in 1596
  • Augurous, a. rare, first appeared in 1600
  • Augurship, n., (meaning the office or term of office of an augur), first appeared in 1618
  • Augury, n., first appeared in 1374, used by Chaucer in Troylus: “I have eke foundyn, by astronomye, by sort, and by augury eke truly . . That fere and flaum on al the toun shal sprede.”
Many of these early appearances in the English language are translations of Latin and Roman texts; one, augurous, appears in a translation of the Illiad (1600).  [* The word is now obsolete in English.]
Now, don’t confuse augur with auger (a drilling or boring instrument or a plumbing tool)!
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1 Comment

Filed under Historian's Journal, Word of the Week

One response to “Word of the Week: augur

  1. I have not thought this much back to my historical roots but Livy really brought some strong buried emotions. Loved that guy, really loved him.

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