Bill Casselman

New 2018 column.

Increase your vocabulary learning English words

based on the Latin term 'vox' or 'voice.'

At the Wording Desk


What you will learn after reading this column (about 2,500 words):

The semantic connection among words and phrases like avow, provoke, vouch, irrevocable, equivocate, sotto voce,advocatus diaboli, vox populi, vowel, provocateur and vocabulary. 


Vox, vocis is a common word in Classical Latin with the usual plethora of meanings like ‘voice, sound, tone, cry, call, speech, sentence or proverb.’ This reminds us that Latin is a terse language of few words. Therefore, each Latin word has many meanings and so the context, the sentence or the phrase, in which one finds an individual Latin word gives its apt sense.

Vox, vocis is the ultimate etymon (original root) of our English word voice, derived as it is through Old French forms like voiz and vois from Latin vox, vocis. Voice appears in English during the 14th century. The even older Indo-European root pops up in languages as ancient as Sanskrit vāk ‘voice’ and vakti ‘he says.’ The Vikings spoke Old Norse where vātta meant ‘to witness, to say yes, to agree to.’

From the noun arose the Latin verb voco, vocare, vocavi, vocatus ‘to call forth, to summon into legal court, to invoke, to bring together, to put in position, to name a person or thing.’

From both the verbal and nounal Latin root derive dozens of English words, some clear derivatives like vocal, others hidden derivatives like vouch.

Middle French had vocher and voucher ‘to summon to court and to support,’ which Middle English borrowed as vouchen or vochen, first used in an English legal meaning. In its Modern English form as an intransitive verb to vouch has senses like “I will vouch for you = I will guarantee your honesty and moral character.”

I can vouch for the truth of that statement = I will give my personal assurance that it is true.”

Vox Humana
The vox humana, Latin ‘human voice,’ is one of the oldest reed-stops used playing a concert, chuch or theater pipe organ. It was named because of its so-called resemblance to the human voice. But this is often a far-fetched goal, due to varying acoustics in churches and recital halls. Usually the vox humana produces an acceptable tremolo with a vibrato effect.

A vowel is a letter of the English alphabet representing sounds associated with a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y. The word derives from a Latin adjective vocalis meaning ‘making a sound, sounding, sonorous.’ By the time of its appearance in Middle French as vouel, the word had lost its central hard c-sound. Intervocalic c-sounds sometimes soften to a y-sound and then disappear, so that Latin vocalis becomes Middle French vouel and Middle English vowel. A fancy way to say this in linguistics is to refer to the lenition of a medial voiced consonant. For example, the Germanic word for eye, Augen descends into some German dialects, including English, with the g-sound still in very early Old English as a weak neuter ēage that, by the time of Middle English, had become in some dialects eeye and later in Modern English eye.

Lenition is a kind of sound change that alters consonants. The process results in weakened articulation of a consonant, causing the consonant to become voiced, spirantized, or lost. In our Latin-to-French word, vocalis, the c-sound is eventually lost.

A voiced consonant like a g-sound is called voiced because the vocal cords vibrate when you make that sound. The hard c-sound (or k-sound) is voiceless because you do not vibrate the vocal cords. Instead you use air passing over the vocal cords and constriction of some throat muscles to make a hard c-sound.

This verb tends to be still used in its earlier legal senses.

I avow her to be the best daughter a mother and father ever had. To avow then is ‘to declare as a simple fact, to assert an open, blunt truth.’

My avowal of her faithfulness is all the emotional truth you need to know.

The Middle English language of law courts had avowen from Old French avouer ‘to summon to justice, to call to one’s side for help,’ from the compound Latin verb advocare which similar meanings to the Old French. An officer of a law court formally called to assist you in legal matters was your advocate or lawyer. The etymology is: Latin preposition ad ‘to, next to, beside’ + vocare ‘to call, to summon.’ Your advocate must indeed ‘stand beside you’ before your judge in the courtroom.

Advocatus diaboli
A common Latin phrase, advocatus diaboli entered English too, ‘the devil’s advocate.’ It began as the actual title of an officer of the Roman Catholic Church, appointed to challenge a proposed beatification or canonization, or the verification of a miracle. On television, an interviewer will sometimes tell a guest, “I’m going to play the devil’s advocate here, so our viewers can hear both sides of the argument.” Provoking debate and airing opposing arguments is part of good discussion, something rarely achieved on most news media.

Many Latin prepositional prefixes were added to the simple Latin verb vocare to give English derivatives.

A vocation is one’s “calling” in life, one’s occupation.

An avocation is a hobby, an activity that “calls you away” from your everyday vocation at work. Latin a, ab ‘away from, out of’ + Latin vocatio ‘a summons to court, a bidding, an invitation to dinner’ and in later ecclesiastical Latin vocatio named ‘a religious calling to enter the service of the Lord,’ a sense still used in Roman Catholic and Protestant English where a priest or minister’s vocation may be referenced.

A convocation ‘calls people together’ usually for some ritual purpose, such as mass graduation from a school or college. Latin con, cum ‘with, together’ + Latin vocatio ‘a summoning.’

To evoke sweet memories of summer holidays is to call them out of memory into active consideration. Latin e, ex ‘out of’ + Latin vocatio ‘a summoning.’ Such an evocation is often of a pleasant nature.

An invocation sometimes begins a church service, where the minister “calls into” the company of the faithful there gathered the presence of God. Latin in ‘into, in’ + Latin vocatio ‘a summoning.’ To invoke the Almighty thus is seen as the fit and proper business of a holy man and of God’s pious followers as well.

To provoke bad feelings is, in a literal sense, ‘to call them forth so they are in front of you.’ Latin prefix pro ‘in front of, in support of, leading’ + Latin vocare ‘to summon to a position.’ English borrowed part of a French noun phrase, agent provocateur as a special police term to name a person who gets other people to break the law so that the authorities know before they commit the crimes who the other persons are and thus insure their conviction. Loose but not exact synonyms in English might be: instigator, rabble-rouser and inciter.

Those conversant with French history will know about the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. In 1598 Henry IV, the king of France, had granted the Huguenots (French Protestants) the right to practice their religion free of being persecuted by the French state. A little less than one hundred years later, in 1685, that decadent swine Louis XIV, at the insistence of his bigoted Catholic wife, issued an imperial Edict of Fontainebleau, also known as the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which made the Protestant religion illegal and revoked all rights formerly granted. It allowed Catholic peasants to burn down Huguenot churches and set fire to Protestant schools with children still inside at class. Naturally the Pope nodded his obscene head in approval. Almost one million Protestants emigrated from France over the next twenty years. They went to civilized countries like England, Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark and to uncivilized places in North America.
Revocation = Latin prefix re ‘back, again, repeated’ + Latin vocatio ‘a calling’

Something that is not able to be revoked is irrevocable.

To revoke something is to annul it by recalling or taking it back, as something granted by a special act like the Edict of Nantes. To revoke something is to rescind it, to cancel it, to repeal it. Synonyms might be verbs like to abandon, abort, call off, drop, recall, repeal, scrap or scrub.

She revoked her old will and made a new testament leaving the residue of her estate to her cat. Her husband Orville was somewhat perturbed.

His privilege of entering the government laboratory without showing identification was revoked on the morning he showed up stoned.

If you equivocate, you dodge the question, you shilly-shally with the truth, using language so unclear and ambiguous that you conceal what is true and don’t commit yourself to an honest answer. You are a fudger, a waffler, a weasel, a pussyfooting fence-straddler. Dr. Samuel Johnson, in one of the first English dictionaries, wrote an excellent definition of equivocate: “‘to mean one thing and express another.”

The roots are in the Medieval Latin low verb aequivocāre ‘to call something by the same name’ so that it might be a good name or a bad name. Who can tell? Latin adjective aequus ‘flat, plain, level, fair, impartial, of several meanings, equal’ + Latin vocare ‘to call.’ The sense in Late Latin of aequivocare was ‘to call something both good and bad, to have a double meaning in what you say.’ How helpful was that? Was the speaker trying to deceive the hearer? Of course!

Exemplary sentence: The newspaper said the mayor of the city was equivocating, not telling the citizens that dams and weirs along the river were in poor repair.

One who is vociferous is loud, vulgar and strident. Latin vox vocis ‘voice’ + Latin verb ferre ‘to carry.’
In the Vocative Case
The vocative is a grammatical case in declining nouns in some languages. The vocative is directed to a person or thing addressed. When a minister says, “Hear us, O Lord” he is addressing God directly and using the vocative case. The vocative is prominent in languages like Latin with a large number of inflected forms in their declensions of nouns. For example, in the biblical Latin phrase miserere, Domine ‘Have mercy, O Lord,’ Domine is in the Latin vocative case. Ave, Caesare ‘Hail, Caesar!’ sees the vocative of the leader’s name used. It is the case that ‘calls out’ and addresses a person or thing.

Apostrophe as a Vocative
Among rhetorical techniques there is a ploy called an apostrophe, in which the writer or speaker addresses something inanimate or abstract. The speaker might be talking not to a person but to a mental concept like love or even a thing, like the sun or the sea. Apostrophe is a common feature of such emotional oratory.

Do not confuse apostrophe, the literary device, with apostrophe as a punctuation mark (‘).

An apostrophic figure of speech often uses the vocative. A famous one in Latin is the Roman lawyer Cicero bemoaning, in the midst of the trial of a do-badder, the decline of goodness in ancient Rome:
O Tempora! O Mores! ‘O the times! The customs of men!’

Apostrophe is not always serious.
“Beware, O Asparagus, you’ve stalked my last meal.”

In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the Scottish regicide is riddled with doubts and fears before he murders King Duncan:
“Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand?
Come, let me clutch thee!
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.”

The lines in bold type comprise an apostrophe. The dagger is not a person and yet, to Macbeth, it seems all too alive.

Jane Taylor uses apostrophe in her children’s verse, The Star:
“Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are.
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky.”

Here a child speaks to a star which is an inanimate object. The speech is apostrophic.

One apostrophe in modern literature that I like immensely is by James Joyce in his novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:
“Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”

James Joyce raises the level of rhetoric in that line so that it may truly reflect a young man’s ardour, but the pitch of the rhetorical excess suggests Joyce may be laughing gently at such passion, perhaps laughing in self-mockery at himself when young.

The vocabulary of English is all the words that make up our language. A vocabulary at the back of a book for learning a foreign language is usually an alphabetical list of the words in that book with a brief meaning given in English. It’s a medieval Latin word vocabularium from an earlier classical Latin vocabulum which first meant ‘an appellation, designation, name of any thing, a name,’ that is, what one calls something (Latin vocare ‘to call, to name, to use words.’)

Vocology: A Newer, Rarer Word
Vocology is the science and practice of vocal habilitation, that is study of the nature of speech and language pathology, defects of the vocal tract, evaluation, diagnosis and intervention in speech therapy and voice training for actors, television newsreaders, presenters and other public speakers.

Latin phrases with Vox seen in English

Vox populi ‘the voice of the people’
In newspaper analysis, vox populi may name a casual, street interview of a person. Its short form appears frequently as vox pop. Sarcasm may bathe the phrase too, as when a particularly stupid or unkind remark is quoted on a topic and someone educated listening dismisses the comment in withering scorn as ‘vox populi.’

Vox populi, vox Dei ‘the voice of the people is the voice of god’
This was first said by Peter de Blois (1129-1204 CE) who wrote about the Crusades. But Christian evangelists and television preachers in the Untied States, always benevolent fountains of humane brotherhood, have adopted the phrase, suggesting to me the curious happenstance that God too is a Grade-Three dropout from Alabama.

Vox clamantis in deserto  ‘the voice of one crying in the wilderness.’
This quotation is from St. Jerome’s translation into Latin of the Bible’s Hebrew and Greek, called the Vulgate, Isaiah 40:3, and quoted by St. John the Baptist in Mark 1:3 and John 1:23). It is the motto of Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.

Sotto Voce
This Italian phrase is used in English musical descriptions, sometimes to mark vocal passages that require the singer or speaker to produce a false whisper, a quiet delivery that seeks not to be overheard, as a demand of the plot. In Italian sotto voce means literally “under the voice,” that is, in a voice lower than normal. The Italian word for voice, voce, is a direct descendant of the Latin vox, vocis.

Manifold are English sentences containing the word voice. Contemporary author Neil Gaiman wrote a passage I like and I conclude this column with that passage:
“The one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So, write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can.”

by Bill Casselman, February 10, 2018

Text Copyright 2018 by William Gordon Casselman

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