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Words and Obligations

by H. L. Haywood

According to all the knowledge thus far obtained the old root lig, which has been in continuous use for more than 2,000 years, has always and throughout the many European languages in which it has had a place denoted a tie, a band, a bond, to tie together with a cord or rope. This has never been a one-way tie, as when a man ties his horse to a post, but a two-way one, as when two men are tied to each other. Lig has been preserved in our English speech in such words as ligature, ligament, ligate. The whole family of such words has the general meaning of "to tie together," "to bind together."

Was the word "religion" formed from the root dig? Some etymologists believe that it was, others that it was not; the probabilities are that no man will ever discover the origin of that great term, but if one did, and if it chanced to be one of the words formed from lig, then the central idea would be that far back in time men broke the tie which bound them to God, and religion is the means by which the tie can be restored.

About our own word "obligation" there can be no such doubt. "Obligate" and "obligation," as they stand, are pure Latin words, almost unchanged, and each of them is formed by combining the root Iig, with the prefix ob, which meant "to move toward," "to act toward," therefore "to obligate" has always meant "to act so as to tie two things together." It will from this be seen that in Freemasonry the word is used with historical and literal accuracy, because the obligation is not a one-way tie by which the candidate binds himself to the lodge, but a two-way tie by means of which the candidate and the lodge bind themselves to each other, and do so with a three-fold tie that cannot be easily broken. (The "three" is here used in a very old symbolic sense, in which it means "infinite" - that is to say, there will always be in it as many strands as may be needed.)

The word "swear" has been spoiled during the past century by a perverted habit of using it in the sense of "to use profane language," "to utter cursing." It is a pity, because the word has a noble and dignified history, and in its original meaning was something very beautiful. The Latins had sermo, which meant "a conversation," and it is the same word, it so happens, that we have in our "sermon," which originally meant a discourse or conversation about religious subjects. But since in a conversation there is much of one answering another, sermo, in the form which it took in modern languages came to have the general meaning of "to give answer," "to answer to," and our word "swear" is the form taken by it in the languages which originated in northern Europe. "To swear" therefore means, and means only, "I shall stand ready to answer for my own acts"; a man pledges himself always to be responsible for what he does, and not to try to evade responsibility, or to try to shift it to another. (This evasion is vividly preserved in the old sentence, "They all began to make excuse," "excuse" meaning that each tried to blame another for what he himself had done.)

The word "oath," like "swear," has been spoiled by using it to denote some word or expletive which an angry man uses in an act of profane language, but it ought never to be used in that sense. It originated among the Teutonic languages of northern Europe, and came into English through Anglo- Saxon, and in those languages it always had a two-fold meaning: first, in taking an oath a man made a solemn promise, he asseverated his determination to do, or not to do, certain things; second, he made that promise "in the name of" God, or else of something sacred, something of the highest authority. Thus, and to illustrate, there is evidence to show that in one period of Craft history candidates took the oath on a copy of the Old Charges, because they were the Book of Constitutions, embodying the laws of highest authority. When a man takes an oath in the name of God he is not doing something light, or flippant, still less is he sacrilegious; he is making it clear that in giving his pledge, or solemn promise, he does so in the full consciousness that he is answerable to the highest of all authorities.

The Latin plevire meant that a man undertook something, or engaged himself, or took an obligation to perform a certain act, but by the time it was adopted into modern European languages in the form of "pledge," it had a more special meaning. If a man makes a promise to perform an act, how can the man to whom he makes the promise be sure of his carrying it out? He needs a surety, therefore there arose the custom by which a promiser deposited something of value which he would forfeit if he failed; in consequence of this custom "pledge" came to have two meanings, one to denote the promise made, the other to denote the token, or security, or thing of value thus placed ready for forfeit. This old usage lights up vividly the promises or pledges which a candidate makes. He is destitute, he does not have in his possession anything of value at all, therefore how can he give his pledge? The answer is that he puts himself in bond, pledges himself, and that is the true meaning of taking an obligation on his "honor as a man."

If a man "solemnly" promises or pledges something, what does it mean? It does not mean, except in a species of slang, to have a long, sour, unsmiling face, because a man can be cheerful and solemn at the same time. The word "solemn" has one of the most curious histories among all the words in our language, and not only curious, but involved, so that to give a complete account of it would call for whole pages of print.

The Latins had "sollus," which meant "whole, entire"; with that they combined annus, which meant "year"; this gave them the word sollemnis, which later became sollenis, both of which meant something which took place regularly, each year; and this in turn came to be used almost exclusively of religious observances; and since this usually meant public and important observances, conducted by the state, and participated in by everybody, the word came in time to mean something of great importance, something sacred to every- body, and something which had in it a great dignity. To give a promise or pledge solemnly is to give it in that spirit.

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Last modified: March 22, 2014