Getting a handle on it: like Caesar, even a modern president could use some intestinal wisdom – how ancient techniques foretold the future versus today’s polling methods – Brief Article
Like Caesar, even a modern president could use some intestinal wisdom.
Dictionaries are something like the Bible–more looked up to than looked into. Chasing the origins of words and phrases is like tracing the begats through Genesis or Matthew. One big difference is that you can’t depend on Johnson, Webster, Random House, or Funk to be divinely inspired.
On Tuesday I was in the kitchen drilling a hole to put a handle on a cabinet door.
“You’re boring all the way through,” my wife said.
“And you married me anyway,” I said.
“Not that kind of boring,” she said. “I mean you’re drilling too deep.”
Just then the drill bit snapped off, leaving half in the wood and half in the machine. I shut off the power.
“This is a bad omen,” I said. “It does not augur well.”
“Very clever,” she said. “But you misused it.”
“It was a cheap bit,” I said.
“I mean you misused the word. You’re talking about an auger, with an e. Where I came from, auger with a u means to talk too much or argue.”
“You didn’t come from ancient Rome. An augur was a soothsayer.”
“Say what?” she said.
“Like the soothsayer in Julius Caesar. The ides of March and all that.”
I’d have to get a new drill bit to finish the door handle tomorrow.
Meanwhile we had to look up auger and augur in the dictionary–there are some things you can’t leave overnight.
I went downstairs to the wordshop and opened the unabridged. She was right about auger with an e. It’s a drilling tool. “It’s somewhat larger than a gimlet,” I said, taking the dictionary up to her and reading aloud.
“If you had a gimlet,” she said, “you’d never be able to drill straight. And I still say augur means to talk too much.”
“It means that, too,” I said. “It was apparently just confused with argue, `Esp. in the Western U.S.’ In dictionary talk, esp. means especially. Anyway, an augur was a Roman official who foretold the future by studying the flight of birds and watching them eat.”
“Some hobby,” she said.
“An augur was a professional prophet,” I said.
“Couldn’t have been much profit in bird watching.”
“These guys also cut birds open and told the future by reading their entrails.”
I looked up entrails. “Intestines, viscera,” I said.
“Gimme that book,” she said, reaching for the dictionary. I had to admit I couldn’t see how you could make a crystal ball out of a bird’s insides. Probably not from a sow’s ear, either.
From the entrails of The Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins we gathered that birds’ innards were something like tea leaves to the Romans. They appointed an auspex to observe eagles and ravens and owls, listening to their cries and watching which way they flew.
“Even woodpeckers, if you can believe that,” I said. “I suppose `as the crow flies’ told Caesar how to get safely from the Forum to the baths.”
“If he spent much time looking up at birds,” she said, “he probably needed lots of baths.”
When a new Caesar took the seat of power, his auspex watched the birds and looked at their innards. If the entrails augured well, the august personages declared an august occasion and conducted an inaugural. The first to have one was, of course, Caesar Augustus. The connections among words is fascinating.
“From such omens the augurs could tell whether a new Caesar was likely to prosper, to augment his well-being and that of the state. They could predict whether he would rule long and happily–or have his own entrails pierced.”
I slapped shut the dictionary and looked wanly at the broken drill bit sticking its tongue out like a dagger. Et tu, Brute?
“Caesars have always been the victims of defective augurs,” I said.
“If you were president today,” she said, “would you watch a woodpecker as a guide to your behavior? Would you fortell your future by listening to an eagle flap its wings or looking at a crow’s insides?”
“Better than listening to the polls,” I said.
“Maybe the Romans had a point. I suppose even a modern president could use some intestinal wisdom.”
“Yeah,” I said, “if only to get a handle on his cabinet.”
COPYRIGHT 1998 Saturday Evening Post Society
COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group