Daily Archives: January 9, 2011

thurifer

There are some words that are more frank in sense than others. This one, to most eyes, is not exactly a thoroughfare from form to meaning. It’s likely that you’ve never seen the word before, even if you’ve seen its referent (which you may or may not have).

Looking at it, what does it bring to mind? Perhaps it smacks of Lucifer, which is certainly a name that comes with an unpleasant smoky glow. Some might wonder if it relates to Urim and Thummim (what’s that? um, something from the Bible; high priests wore them…). Not exactly. Others might suspect it is some kind of musical instrument, like a theorbo. It is not, though a thurifer may know how to swing.

If you’re a word geek like me, you’ll fix immediately on the ifer. Yes, that’s the same as in Lucifer, which means “light bearer” (remember that Lucifer was chief of the angles angels before his fall); it’s also the same as in crucifer, which means “cross bearer”, and aquifer, which is from “water bearer” (yes, so is aquarius). In short, fer bears the sense “bearer” (and the i is connecting tissue). So, given that, I further wonder what that thur there is. So I look it up and find it’s thus.

Thus? No, not thus, thus. Don’t get incensed; it’s not “therefore”; incense is what it’s there for. You see, Latin for “incense” (in particular frankincense) is thus – which is also an English word, even if almost no one knows it is: the th voiceless, as in thin; the us is either like us or rhyming with goose. The shift from the /s/ to a /r/ in thus > thurifer – which happened by way of /z/ – is due to a phonological transformation called rhotacism: the fricative trips lightly to become a liquid when it’s between vowels (it verily purrs, though rhotacism is not eroticism). We North American English speakers do something similar with /t/ and /d/ in similar environments.

So is a thurifer a thing that carries incense? Hm. Well, a thurifer might be incensed at being called a thing. Actually, the referent of thurifer is the person. (In Medieval Latin they used the longer thuriferarius… probably until the scribes complained. I mean, really, holy smokes.) The incense burner that a thurifer carries (and likely swings on a chain) is in fact a thurible. Another name for a thurifer is thus thuribuler, though that’s rather terribler, I think. The thing is that thurible, like – for instance – chasuble, has that little niblet or dribble of /bl/ at the end, and while that might seem more technical or detail oriented in flavour, it lacks the smoothness of thurifer, with its soft brushing fricatives issuing forth like smoke. True, it also lacks the smack of Lucifer, but with richer flavours come inevitably some dark and contrasting tones. It was ever thus.