Wednesday, 18 May 2011

The Rapture, now with more Harpies

The latest xkcd:
(Mouse-over text: But to us there is but one God, plus or minus one. --1 Corinthians 8:6±2.)

The first panel is really the funniest bit: a pun on raptor (referencing the Jurassic Park movie). But in fact, rapture and raptor are not only phonologically similar, they're also etymologically related: both deriving from Latin rapt-, the past participial stem of rapere "to seize, to snatch, to carry off".

Also from Latin rapere are subreptitious "snatching under", rapacious "(greedily) snatching (with the intent to eat)", and rape (originally "carrying off", then "carrying off, esp. with the intent of sexually despoiling", later coming to refer specifically to "forced sexual intercourse").

Raptor in classical Latin meant "robber, thief", which is its meaning also in early English, later on in English it can also mean "rapist". From the 18th century, it was applied to "birds of prey", whence its later extension to refer to a particular "dromaeosaurid dinosaur", the Velociraptor "swift seizer".

Rapture, on the other hand, is not found in classical Latin, though it does appear in mediaeval Latin. The earliest citation the OED provides is from an 8th-century British text, in the form raptura, referring to "poaching". Its use in English, however, originally is confined to the sense (attested from the 16th century) of "extreme joy, intense delight". Though it was also used in the 17th and 18th centuries to refer to the "carrying off" or "rape" of women.

And not until the 18th century does rapture acquire its Millenarial sense (associated with ideas originally advanced by the Puritans Increase and Cotton Mather in Massachusetts). The word rapture in this Millenarial philosophy apparently picks up on the Latin word rapiemur (from rapere, see above) used in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 to refer to the faithful being "carried up" into the air (to meet Christ) in the Latin Vulgate:
deinde nos qui vivimus qui relinquimur simul rapiemur cum illis in nubibus obviam Domino in aera et sic semper cum Domino erimus
The Latin Vulgate of course is a translation of the Koine Greek text, and in this passage Latin rapiemur glosses the Greek ἁρπαγησόμεθα "we shall be caught up":
ἔπειτα ἡμεῖς οἱ ζῶντες οἱ περιλειπόμενοι ἅμα σὺν αὐτοῖς ἁρπαγησόμεθα ἐν νεφέλαις εἰς ἀπάντησιν τοῦ κυρίου εἰς ἀέρα: καὶ οὕτως πάντοτε σὺν κυρίῳ ἐσόμεθα.
Interestingly, Greek ἁρπάζω "catch up, snatch up"---of which ἁρπαγησόμεθα is the first person plural future passive indicative form---originates from the same Proto-Indo-European root as the Latin rapere which St Jerome uses to gloss it: PIE *h1rep- "to snatch" (also the source of English reap).

From the same Greek root as ἁρπάζω "catch up" is the word which comes into English as harpy: Greek ἅρπυια "the snatcher". So, with that, I leave you with some Harpies to flavour your Rapturous visions, courtesy of Gustave Doré:

[Edit (20 May 2011): Now see Mark Liberman's "No Word for Rapture" on Language Log for further etymological discussion of rapture.]


  1. Alfred North Whitehead, the logician (he co-wrote Principia Mathematica with Bernard Russell) and Unitarian, defined Unitarian as "someone who believes in at most one God.".

  2. So what you’re saying is that the pious will be raptured by velociraptors and harpies?

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. I made a hipster kitty a while back that I think only I got... thanks for explaining the humour of (harpazo) and (harpie)!!

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