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.