Family Portrait , François-Hubert Drouais, detail, oil on canvas, 1756 CE, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
A richly dressed trio of the 18th-century Parisian bourgeoisie gathers here en famille. On the floor a box, opened to reveal lace, pearls, and gaily striped silk, has painted on its lid “this first of April 1756.” The gifts, the girl’s flowers, and the paper held by the father—a poem perhaps—are all poissons d’avril ‘April fish,’ token gifts named after the zodiac fish sign, Pisces. These little gifts were exchanged by family and intimate friends on April 1 to mark the beginning of French spring, playful but more loving than April Fool’s Day jokes in English.
Search this site only
original meaning — ‘house full of slaves’
In Latin, familia began as a collective noun meaning ‘all the slaves belonging to one master’ based on a common Latin word for slave-servant, famulus.
The Romans appear to have borrowed the word from their Italian neighbours, one race of whom were the Osci. By 350 BCE Rome had conquered the Osci. The Oscan word for ‘slaves of the household’ was famelo, while Oscan for household slave was famel.
The Oscans, justly or not, had the reputation among the stern early Romans of being a degenerate race of sexual profligates who held naked orgies nightly upon the rolling pasturelands of Campania. As l’heure bleue of twilight settled like a pestilential fog on the Oscan fields, depraved lewdness ran amok; debauched games during which gauze-clad damsels scampered screaming through tepid porridge were spoken of, and — oh my! — moans of lust rose loud, drowning out susurrous devotions lisped by shy virgins on temple steps; tales of repugnant cavortings in vats of warm lard (!) and lascivious slitherings nude in mud reached the shocked ears of innocent Romans, who, horrified and disgusted, immediately begged for more details. Perhaps not too different from today’s Vatican emails of nun-to-nun chatter.
A little later in Latin, familia came to mean all the people over whom the paterfamilias (Latin ‘head of the household’) held sway. That included his wife, his sons and his daughters. So even in Latin familia sometimes meant ‘members of one’s immediate family,’ and sometimes the extended circle of one’s blood relatives out to second and third cousins.
Romans Who Abused Their Slaves were Roman Trash
Every Roman did not treat slaves badly. Here’s a satirical comment on cruelty to servants from that deft comic epigrammatist, Martial (circa 39 CE to 103 CE). Born in Spain, Marcus Valerius Martialis arrived in Rome as a new boy and viewed the eternal city’s shenanigans from a witty immigrant’s dry perspective. This is from his third book of epigrams, a rebuking couplet about punishing a kitchen slave (# 94):
Esse negas coctum leporem poscisque flagella.
Mauis, Rufe, cocum scindere quam leporem.
“You deny that your rabbit is cooked and call for the whip. You’d rather cut up your cook, Rufus, than your rabbit.”
Casselman addendum: The implication is: Rufus, you are sadistic lout.
Dominus Illuminatio Mea ‘The Lord is my Light’
Paterfamilias was not the most common Latin word for ‘master of the house.’ That was dominus, based on domus ‘house, estate.’ Dominus gives the Latin Bible the name for Jesus, Dominus =Lord, and gives English the verb, to dominate. For those into S&M, it also supplies an occupational name for Brenda, Queen of Pain & Whips. She is a dominatrix, feminine form of dominator. The Biblical quotation that heads this paragraph is the motto of the University of Oxford and appears frequently as part of the printer’s device which is the emblem of Oxford University Press.
Other English words from the same root are domain through French demaine and, perhaps surprisingly, the term dame meaning ‘lady’ through Old French from Latin domina ‘mistress, lady,’ feminine of dominus ‘master of a domus’ Latin ‘house.’
On the lateral of a Roman funeral altar circa 50-70 CE, the Latin inscription means “To the gods of the dead, a father, Lucius Julius Gamus [set up this tomb marker] for his very sweet young son, Anthus.” Lucius had borrowed a Greek word anthos ‘flower’ to name his son. In ancient Rome, Anthus or Anthos did not have any effeminate taint, as naming a boy Flower might have today in English.
To a Roman ear, Anthus would also hint of an affectionate diminutive of the more common Roman male given name Antonius. Anthus was not such a diminutive. On the plaintive tombstone, Anthus’ little pet dog tugs at the dead boy’s toga, inviting him to leave the gloomy banks of Lethe, river of death, and come to play once more in the garden of life.
Getting Too Familiar?
The first Latin meaning of the adjective familiaris was ‘belonging to one’s own household.’ Extended meanings followed in Latin, most of them borrowed into French and English along with the Latin adjective. Familiaris referred to anything private and personal, as opposed to public. Further semantic generalization occurred to render familiaris as meaning ‘well-known, customary, welcome, suitable, etc.’ — all senses familiar in English.
In his play, Henry the Fifth (Act 4, scene 3) William Shakespeare, in Henry’s famous St. Crispian’s Day speech, writes a line that almost quotes an early Latin manual and strongly suggests that Shakespeare is remembering one of his sixteenth-century Latin classes:
“King Henry: . . .
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
Household Words was a weekly London magazine edited by Charles Dickens in the 1850s which took its name from the lines above.
Of course, familiarity breeds contempt. Let us squelch that, by quitting this column.
copyright © 2012 William Gordon Casselman
Order My Book Online
Hundreds of links to more of my word entries are available below.
Any comments, corrections, emendations, additional word lore, orders for my books?
Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Click Titles Below to Read Some of My Other Word Columns