At the Wording Desk

Bill Casselman

Increase knowledge of English by tracing the Latin root of that strange denial-of-sex called celibacy. Learn why it does not work!

My brethren and cistern, before we wade into the Vaseline-slippery topic of celibacy and its verbal origin, here are 3 snappers from late-night television comedians of recent decades:

“I read this in the paper this morning: New York City has a priest shortage. So you see, there is some good news in the world. To give you an idea how bad it is, earlier today in Brooklyn an altar boy had to grope himself.” — David Letterman

“The Cardinals will be staying at the Domus Sanctae Marthae, the new hotel at the Vatican, where the phrase turn-down service means the bell boy isn’t interested.” — Daily Show host Jon Stewart

“After all these scandals in the church, many Roman Catholics are calling for an end to celibacy. An end to celibacy? How about starting celibacy? Let’s at least try it, to see if it works.” — Jay Leno

Etymology of the Word Celibate
Caelebs, caelibis 3rd declension adj. ‘alone, unmarried, single’ in Latin is used only to refer to single men; nubilis was the adjective for ‘unmarried woman,’ hence nubile in English first signified ‘able to be married,’ then came to mean ‘young and lovely.’

A Latin motto, paraphrasing the famous Cartesian statement, has been suggested for these male sex-deniers: Cogito, ergo sum caelebs.

A female celibate would have to say in Latin: Cogito ergo sum nubilis.

This caelebs adjective was different from Latin solus ‘alone.’ Caelebs meant the male was alone on purpose, not married for some reason.

Caelebs is akin to the same Proto-Indo-European root, *koilos, that shows up in Old English hal ‘sound and healthy.’ The abstract noun for ‘being sound’ is from the same root, namely, hal-th or hael-th = health!

A modern English reflex of hal, and descendant of PIE * koilos, is whole….when whole means “entire, single.”

Also from that ancient root are greeting words like Hail! (literally ‘be well’) and its German equivalent Heil!

Wassail began as a Middle English toast. As one raised a goblet of spiced wine or mead, one cried out Waes haeil! ‘Be well!’

Cælebs and its noun of state cælibatus are the only cognate words found in Latin. Celibacy is a late coinage, possibly English. The first printed appearance of celibacy in the Oxford English Dictionary is mid-17th century. Célibat ‘celibacy’ shows up earlier in French by 1549 CE, célibataire by 1711 CE.

The more ancient etymology of caelebs is obscure, but the first good guess was made by master etymologist Eric Partridge who drew linguistic attention to the Sanskrit word kévalah ‘alone.’ The uses of the Sanskrit root suggest that, even in Indo-European, the word may have meant “alone by some kind of choice,” perhaps equivalent to the Roman Catholic meaning of celibate, in which the choice is supposedly religious. There’s a reflex of the root in Old Church Slavonic, cěglŭ ‘single, alone.

Don’t Have Sex Before the Big Game. Right?
Perhaps an ancient shaman lived celibate so that he had more power to summon the gods? This is a common physiological and psychological fantasy of unmarried monks and nuns: By giving up sex, all that unreleased sexual energy can be redirected to spirituality. Yeah, right! Tell that to buggered altar boys in Roman Catholic churches all over the world.

The redirection of bodily energy argument has NO SUPPORT in scientific human biology whatsoever. You have perhaps heard of baseball coaches, those gum-chewing bibles of kinesiological discernment, who tell their male players not to have sex the night before the big game. Do subsequent performance studies corroborate this notion? Not one. Of course, there are vast squads of string-around-the-dick lunkheads who believe it. Unfortunately, gullible ignorance of physiology does not constitute proof. Human males denied human females will mount inflatable sex toys, boys, girls, goats, larger domestic pets and knotholes in oak trees.

Celibacy: Legit Life Style OR Creepy Avoidance of Sex
Once in a while, wacky old maids dismount from their gear shifts to proclaim twisted harangues defending celibacy. But does history teem with celibates? Florence Nightingale was single. Sir Isaac Newton never dipped his stick. And dig those scandalous Vestal Virgins of old Rome. But most people screw. It’s fun. The abstainers are almost all psychotically afraid of sex or twisted into a cankered, bitter knot of loathing because some man or woman abused, thwarted, undid or deserted them.

According to preponderant psychiatric orthodoxy, male celibacy is a pathetic attempt to disguise fear of sex or avert being labeled a pervert, an attempt almost always doomed to seedy failure.

Unless you were born as a large head with nothing below the neck except a hideous waving field of teeny millipede legs, lifelong sexual abstinence is a disease. Celibacy, say the majority of psychiatrists, does not work.

Offering your genitals to God is a sign of deep sickness, not a token of corporeal piety.

Anatomical Contamination is the Diagnosis
The term for this malady in psychoanalytic literature is often “anatomical contamination.” The sickness may begin quite early in childhood, due to incompetent parenting, bad toilet training or any number of mommy-and-daddy screw-ups. The child beset with anatomical contamination comes to loathe his or her body, to unduly dwell on bodily exudations like pus and mucus and sperm and rheumy droolings. The AC body is felt to be a cesspit of filth and rot. Sex partakes of this rot and must be avoided at all costs. There’s a creepy fastidiousness in their thinking about sex. Irish poet W.B. Yeats’ lady friend complained through all of their relationship that William would not go down on her. In a letter to her, Yeats actually wrote (and later also in a public poem!) that his reluctance to engage in cunnilingus had to do with one fact: “Venus has pitched her tent in the house of excrement.” Yikes! Perhaps the apter expletive would be: Holy Shit! I guess W.B. never heard of Irish Spring soap.

Another causative agent sometimes promoting anatomical contamination is a child’s developing awareness of his or her homosexuality. This must be hidden forever! Celibate nunnery and monkery then beckon. By giving up a troublesome sexuality, the worrier can postpone announcing homosexuality. The western-world’s epidemic of moppet-diddling by priests suggests just how effective a deterrent that ploy is!

From a book defending and glorifying religious celibacy edited and contributed to by Carl Olson (Celibacy and Religious Tradition, Oxford University Press, 2008) here is one of the classic Roman Catholic fear-of-sex statements shrouded in pro-celibacy gobbledygook: “Celibacy is an excellent example of exerting discipline and control upon the human body.” Wee Carl does not go on to say that sexual need leaks out in many sick ways: not merely upending altar boys but also the unappetizing spectacle of monks in their lonely cells masturbating with stainless-steel scouring pads “so it will hurt.” Penile abrasions, anyone? How sick is that? “Yes, my brethren in Christ. Surprise! I’m leaving our religious order. I’m getting married next week — to a Kurly Kate!”

Poor, old, feminist-assaulted Sigmund Freud had a sense of humour. Siggy wrote that “everything repressed returns — usually at 3 a.m. and in a bad mood.”

All of science tells us celibacy is unnatural, sick and — mainly — impossible.

Fuck celibacy. So-to-speak.

The Celibacy Test
Three young candidates for the priesthood are told by the Monsignor they have to pass one more test: The Celibacy Test. The Monsignor leads them into a room, and tells them to undress, and a small bell is tied to each man’s penis.

In comes a beautiful woman, wearing a sexy belly-dancer costume. She begins to dance sensually around the first candidate. Even before she has begun to remove her veils, his little penis bell jingles. Ting-a-ling. Ting-a-ling.

“Oh Patrick,” says the Monsignor, “I am so disappointed in your complete lack of self-control. Go take a long, cold shower and pray about your carnal weakness.”

As Patrick leaves, the dancer then continues, slowly dancing around the second candidate and peeling off her layers of veils. As the last veil drops: Ting-a-ling goes his bell.

“Joseph, Joseph,” sighs the Monsignor. “You too are unable to withstand your carnal desires. Go take a long, cold shower and pray for forgiveness.”

The dancer then proceeds to dance her sensuous dance around the third candidate. Slowly around him she dances, now devoid of all of her veils, but the third candidate remains unmoved. His bell does not ring.

“James, my son, I am truly proud of you,” says the Monsignor. “Only you have the true strength of character needed to become a great priest. Now, go and join your weaker brethren in the shower.”

Suddenly James’ bell goes ting-a-ling, ting-a-ling.

Final Cheap Celibacy Joke
Words Can Mess You Up

After a lifetime of hand-copying ancient texts, an elderly monk became abbot of his monastery.

Realizing that for centuries his order had been making copies of copies, he decided to examine some of the monastery's original documents.

Days later, the other monks found him in the cellar, weeping over a crumbling manuscript and moaning, “It says celebrate, not celibate.”

Bill Casselman, March 04, 2017,

Text copyright 2017 by William Gordon Casselman


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