The Creative Exploration of Language

Monthly Archives: May 2012


While husband now simply means the male partner in a marriage, its original meaning is somewhat more complex.  The word is borrowed, with only a slight transformation, from Old Norse and consists of two parts.  The first is hus, which is the Norse word for ‘house’.  The second is band, derived from the Norse word bóndi, which means a freeholding owner of property and goods.  Taken together then, a husband in the original sense is master of a household and owner of the property, goods of which it was comprised.

In the social context of the agricultural and still semi-tribal lands of Scandinavia and England during the heyday of Old West Norse (the variety spoken in Norway, Iceland and Norwegian colonies in the British Isles), a bóndi essentially meant a farmer.  The root of the word is , which means ‘dwelling’ and is cognate with other Germanic words for farmer, such as the modern German bauer, Dutch boer, and the Old English word gebur.

In a frontier-like society lacking strong central authority (obviously more true of Iceland during this period than of Norway or England, but not totally untrue of the latter countries), a husband is therefore a duty-bound master and protector of the household against predatory outside forces which may be neighbors or other locals looking to settle scores, raiders from other lands or even the king and nascent state forces.  This is a relatively dramatic view of the role of the husband which has mostly been lost due to our modern accommodation to the comforts of a protective state apparatus that enforces the rule of law.

However the preservation of the element ‘band’ within the word, which implies both encirclement and restriction, as well as togetherness and obligation, still provides a hint of the original meaning.  This hint of the archaic lends the word a relatively accurate and traditional view of what a husband is for those who are able to pick up on it.


It will be surprising to most to learn that the word agnostic does not have a long history, but is in fact a neologism invented in 1869 by T.H. Huxely, the grandfather of Aldous.

Huxley’s original meaning was simple: in contrast to those self-satisfied individuals who considered themselves ‘gnostics’ (literally, ‘ones who know’) in matters of religion, he considered himself to be an ‘agnostic’ (literally, “one who doesn’t know’).  But the state of ‘not knowing’ implied by Huxley is not one of complacent ignorance, but rather of a philosophical openness and a non-dogmatic approach to the world that is both attractive and healthy.

I believe that the word’s longevity and naturalness stems from the fact that it filled a need in Western culture: that of a neutral middle ground between the blind faith of tradition and the rampant materialism spawned by the Enlightenment.  While Huxley invented the word, he did not invent the concept but was the heir to a tradition of philosophical skepticism.

The most interesting modern usage of this word is, in my opinion, in the name of the long-running American hardcore band Agnostic Front.  This name implies a militant, aggressive centrist stance, a defiant refusal to line up on either side of the false dichotomy posited by mainstream society.

This is a usage that I feel is more fitting to Huxley’s original meaning than a one-dimensional concept of an agnostic as a simple ‘unbeliever’, which implies that an agnostic is on the side of those who actively disbelieve.  It must be kept in mind that a true agnostic can provide no comfort to either side.


Heresiarch combines two elements taken from relatively provocative words: heresy and anarchy.  The first part of the word, ‘heresi-‘ is indeed related to ‘heresy’ and retains its modern meaning in this context.  However, its root is the Ancient Greek word, haíresis, which means ‘to choose’.  This lends an interesting note to the word in that it seems to indicate that one who chooses to profess a view that goes against the existing orthodoxy risks being labeled a heretic.  It is an oddly value neutral root for a word that in its modern context is heavily laden with negative meaning.

The second part of the word, ‘-arch’ doesn’t come from ‘anarchy’, but is rather the base on which that word is built, the Ancient Greek term arche, which means something like ‘one who begins’.  A heresiarch is therefore the originator of an unorthodox idea.

It is notable that the label of being a heresiarch has tended to be assigned from the perspective of the religious establishment (therefore it is applied to religious ‘rebels’) but only to those whose movements were not successful.  So, while Jesus and Martin Luther, for example, who could be said to have bucked orthodoxy and revolutionized the religious landscape of Western civilization, are not labelled heresiarchs (because their respective sides ‘won’ to the extent that their spiritual movements were not defeated), someone such Arius the Heresiarch, whose ideas and movement were defeated, retains the taint the label to this day.

Arius was a North African Presbyter (equivalent to a modern priest) in the early centuries AD who attended the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD.  The Council had been called by the Roman Emperor Constantine to standardize the doctrine of the early church, and the view championed by Arius which, in essence, denied the idea of the holy trinity was defeated and fell out of favor.  The lack of favor led to this viewpoint, called Arianism, being suppressed and eventually destroyed, and the man himself being labelled an official heretic by the church.  Arianism as a creed was dropped by many over the next few hundred years, and in those areas of stubborn resistance, military force was used to bring the population into the ‘trinitarian’ fold.  In short, Arian lost the battle, thereby making the views and positions he had ‘chosen’ heretical.

In some ways it is surprising that a word as interesting as heresiarch is used so infrequently, but I believe that two factors act to restrain its usage.  First, it rose to prominence in a religious context and there seems to be a cultural hesitancy to use the word outside of this context for fear of breaking an unspoken taboo or denigrating the seriousness of the religious connotation of the word by using it in a profane setting.  Second, as Western society becomes more secular and relativist, the identification of heresies and, therefore, heresiarchs has become infrequent.