July 4, 2012
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Jovial is an odd word in the modern context. Its meaning is clear and straightforward: happy, jolly, good-natured, etc. But the reason why this is so is both surprising and interesting.
The root of the word is jove, which is actually Jove, an alternative name for the Roman god Jupiter, who was seen by the Romans as equivalent to the Greek Zeus. So, to be jovial then, is to be like Jupiter. But which Jupiter, the god or the planet?
If one examines the mythology surrounding Jupiter, one does not get the sense that he was viewed as an overly ‘jolly’ deity. In fact, as the sky-dwelling, thunderbolt wielding king of the Roman pantheon, he seems more likely to inspire terror than laughter.
If we then look to the planet for the source of the association of Jupiter with merriment, we have better luck. Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system, has traditionally been identified in astrological symbolism with prosperity, good fortune and the preservation of vitality. It seems to be this association, rather than the one with the god, that has lent the word its meaning.
The word first cropped up in English in the late 16th century, just as the era of Renaissance magic was giving way to the era of early modern science. I like to think of it as a faint echo from a prior era, a reminder that, to our ancestors, all things have an essence or particular nature, and that just as one thing is connected to another thing, the natures of those things are also connected, all forming a part of the fabric of the ordered cosmos.