• magus •
Pronunciation: may-gês • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: 1. A member of the ancient Persian priestly caste responsible for Zoroastrianism, founded by Zarathustra (Greek Zoroaster), some time between 1200 and 1500 BC in what is today Iran. 2. A person of great wisdom and magical powers.
Notes: As we approach the holiday season, Christians will be reading about the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. According to the Book of Matthew, the newborn child was visited by several magi (may-jai), usually assumed to have been three in number since they left three gifts. The magi visiting Jesus Christ may not have come from Iran; they may have simply been wealthy noblemen or priests from nearby who could afford expensive gifts. However, the Latin word magus, and the Greek word magos whence it came, originally referred to Zoroastrian priests, famous for their knowledge of astrology.
In Play: I know of no reason to isolate today's word in the realm of religion. Many situations today call for it: "It would take more than a new president to turn this company around; it would take a major magus." A wise man must also have powers of magic to qualify as a magus: "Roscoe's ego has gotten completely out of control; he thinks he is some kind of magus."
Word History: Today's Good Word is pure Latin, which explains its unusual plural, perfectly normal in Latin. Latin borrowed the word from Greek magos, itself a borrowing from Old Persian magosh. Persian, the language in Iran today, is an Indo-European language related to English and unrelated to Semitic languages like Arabic and Hebrew. The Proto-Indo-European root underlying magosh meant "able, strong" and may be found in languages all over the Indo-European world today. In English it is might and German mögen "can, may". Among the Slavic languages, we find it in Russian moch', Czech moci, Polish móc, and Slovak môct', all meaning "can, may". The Greek word magos took on an adjective, magikos, meaning "of, like the magi". This sense drifted to "magical", which passed from Greek to Latin to French, where it was borrowed by English as magic. (While we aren't sure if Larry Brady has magical powers of a magus, he certainly has great lexical knowledge, and we thank him for suggesting today's Good Word.)