January 20, 2017 ➳ Word of the day
Today marks the inauguration of the 45th president of the United States of America. Like “democracy” and “republic,” the word inauguration hails from antiquity. The inauguratio was a ceremony in which augurs—priests from Classical Rome—observed the actions of birds to divine the will of the Gods. Like a demented old man shuffling around Central Park, the augury studied the swoops, squawks, and screeches of the avian class. But unlike our shuffler of Strawberry Fields, their observations would directly impact public policy.
Augur, augury, and auspices are from the Latin auspicium and auspex: “One who looks at birds.” But this process of birding cum policy-making (“taking the auspices”) was not a form of prophesy. It was a litmus test of sorts to ensure human acts on Earth were approved by Jupiter above. The augurs were closer to social scientists than oracles—and this is decidedly not praise. Their job was to look at birds.
Today’s events make official a colossal turn for the world’s most powerful democracy and republic. While the future promises much debate about the auspices of this occasion, it is decidedly history that the birds have swooped, and squawked, and spoken.