Thursday, 17 October 2013

Red letter day

Actually, it's not (a red letter day – work is progressing on the -UI- section of #WVGTbook);  but I suppose it is (an RLD) for someone.

To start this morning's In Our Time, one of the guests was describing what there was in the way of church literature before the Book of Common Prayer. The main player was the Missal all in Latin. The faithful had no precise idea of what was going on in the mass; which is why the altar boy rang a hand-bell at critical moments. The same speaker also said there were 'rubrics'.

When people don't know what's going on they can listen for the bell, watch for interesting bits of ceremony, and look at the Missal – even though they can't read Latin. Because rubrics tended to be, and usually were picked out in red (I'm not sure why Etymonline is so mealy-mouthed with its '(often in red writing)'; the word comes from the Latin rubrica  – itself derived from ruber, 'red').The man on the radio probably knew this, but didn't say it (although it strikes me, at least, as interesting and apposite).

To this day⋇, roman missals have instructions to the congregation in red. And every week-day, when there is no special theme to the Mass, is marked (in red) Feria. Students of Portuguese will recognize here the days of the week: Prima Feira, Segunda Feira.... The feira part is so common that the days of the week often have (feminine) adjectives as names: Terça, Quarta, Quinta...

The strange thing is, though (and it's been bothering me for many years) that feria means 'feast'; it's ultimately where the English 'fair' comes from (the public celebration sort of fair, that is).  So  maybe (only my guess) the typesetters of the first missals wanted to say that on the lowliest of working days the Mass was a special celebration.

I was meaning to carry on the theme of redness by marvelling at  Borges' use of rubricar in the story known to many English readers as 'Death and the compass' but which has the original title La muerte y la brújula (which is better, because it doesn't telegraph the solution†). But I have words and words to do, and promises to keep and words to do before I sleep‡.


† Note, if you're that interested in the writings of 'un mero literato de la República meramente argentina': The whereabouts of the final murder in that story is predicted not with a compass but with un compás – which can be used to contruct a rhombus given an equilateral triangle. The English 'compass' and 'pair of compasses' (for the few who insist on giving it its proper name, not just 'compass') are too close for comfort, and you can't tell me that Borges, with all his English learning, didn't know what he was doing when he used that bilingual pun.

Update: 2013.10.18.10:30
‡repaired the misquote (which is now a misquote on only one level!).

Update: 2013.10.21.17:10

Well, until 1966, at least; and where the Latin Mass is said (if it IS – I'm a bit out of touch with this stuff) I imagine the missals used still say it.

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