Temperance, Terror, Torch, Torture

My old blog, the Word of the Day, is defunct, and I’m getting ready to take it down. Before I do, though, I’m going to repost some of the best words here over the next few weeks. Enjoy!


Ultimately, temperance comes from Latin tempus, “time”. No one knows where Latin picked up tempus – most likely from some nearby language, such as Etruscan. In any case, it’s also the root of words such as temple, temporary, tempo, extemporize, and tempest. From tempus came the Latin verb temperare, “to mix properly, moderate, blend”, in the sense of cooking or preparing something to the proper time. This was the source of temper (Old English temprian), and also of the Latin noun temperantia, “moderation”. Temperantia was borrowed into Anglo-French (i.e. the French spoken by the upper-classes in England after William the Conqueror) as temperaunce, which became temperance by the mid-1300’s.

The very oldest versions of the Temperance Tarot card show a figure mixing water into wine, thereby showing temperantia, moderation.

The primary syllable of temperance suggests a path or process that is brought to a halt — not an arbitrary halt, but one that is manifested specifically for this purpose. The idea is that a stretch of time or an activity is given a boundary, which of course is the at the heart of temperance. The other syllables of temperance indicate that setting this boundary confers greater energy, and allows a powerful narrowing towards a goal.


From the Proto Indo European root ter, to “shake”, which is also the root of terrible, tremor, and tremble. ter descended into Latin as terrere “to make afraid, frighten” and the related noun terrorem, “great fear.” It was adopted into Old French as terreur and Middle English as terror.

Spiritually the word indicates a powerful energy in motion, picking up associations of surrounding and overwhelming.

Torch, Torture

Both of these words come from Proto Indo European twork or twerk, “to twist”, also the ancestor of thwart, queer, torque, and distort.Twork became Latin torquere, “to twist or distort”, and from that came torques, a twist of metal. In Old French the word (as torche) was applied to twisted material dipped in wax and set ablaze. Meanwhile, the Latin noun torture (”twisting, torment”; pronounced tor-TOOR-eh) came through Middle French into English as torture.

In Roman times, torture was used extensively. A slave’s testimony was only considered valid if it had been extracted by torture, since it was assumed that a slave would never be truthful unless compelled to do so. Crucifixion was not considered torture, since it was only performed as part of a death sentence, not interrogation. Throughout the medieval period and into modern times, torture has been seen as an expedient and accurate way to facilitate interrogation. Opinion on this matter only began to shift in the 19th century.

The United Nations declared torture immoral in 1948 as part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In modern English, torture is pronounced as TORCH-ur, with the primary stressed syllable identical to the word torch. The phonosemantics indicate a whole, earthy energy carried along a path to an extremely difficult resolution.


  • My fiancée, Ali, has written a ton of awesome stuff over the last few days. Check out:
  • My own thoughts on Obama’s Justice.
  • How to Welcome Challenges: an excellent post from Goodlife Zen, a blog about self-improvement by Zen Master Mary Jaksch.

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