• stylite •
stai-lait • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: No, not a stylish socialite, just the opposite: an ascetic monk who does penance by living atop a column. (Yes, I proofread the sentence.)
Notes: Occasionally we run a totally useless word because it has a fascinating story. This is definitely such a word. It comes from the name of the first column-sitter, St. Simeon Stylites (pronounced [sti-lee-teez]) (390-459 AD), immortalized in a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson named, appropriately enough, St. Simeon Stylites. He was first followed by two other, younger monks known in Church history as Simeon the Younger and Simeon III. Many others followed these.
In Play: The first three St. Simeons and all who followed wished to get above it all and live closer to God. Some built huts atop their columns to protect them from the sun and rain; some created hollow columns and lived inside them. Most, however, lived atop a column, perhaps forerunning the recurring fad of flagpole-sitting.
Word History: The use of this word in history is fascinating enough, but the history of the word itself is just as riveting. The word comes from late Classical Greek stylites from stylos "pillar". The question, of course, is: how did this word end up as English style? It did. Here's how: Latin had a word, stilus "spike" that referred to an instrument used in writing. The Greek word was so close in spelling and meaning that the Latin word soon became stylus, borrowed as is by English to refer to a primitive writing utensil. In Latin, however, it was used metaphorically to refer to a writer's style, just as an English speaker's pen or hand may be his or her style of writing. This sense of the word dribbled down to French, whence English borrowed it, making the figurative meaning its literal meaning. (We are happy that Monroe Thomas Clewis suggested this bizarre item for today's Good Word column.)
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