Odd Words: Auto-da-fé


I was feeling pretty ignorant as I perused page 17 of The New York Times Everyday Reader’s Dictionary of Misunderstood, Misused, and Mispronounced Words: Revised Edition. But you know how it is: words clump. But I found a great word that all my atheist friends will like: auto-da-fé.

I’m finding putting these posts together easier since I started using a highlighter. In general, I treat books very well. Truly, I think there is something sacred about a book. But this one is in very bad shape. It was clearly left in the sun for a long time, because the pages are crumbling. What’s more, they are dark, and so hard to read. Interestingly though, the binding is great. As a result of that, I originally didn’t want to soil it with marks. But that seems absurd now considering that I’ve been using the brittle cover for a bookmark from the start.

Burning for Words Beside Auto-da-fé

As I said, there were a number of words I didn’t know. There was “attrahent” — which means attracting or drawing toward.

I suppose I should have known “attrite,” given the word “attrition.” But who thinks in these ways? But I really should have known “austral” — which means relating to the south. I think we get words like Australia and Australopithecus from the same root. I just never thought about it.

On the other hand, I don’t blame myself for not knowing “auscultate” — which is listening to internal organs via a stethoscope. Who would have thought there would be a word for that? The same goes for “autochthonous” — which describes people who are native to a region rather than migrating there. Just the same, we are all migrants. It’s just that we like to have words to describe the people who got wherever earlier.

But I’m sure you are on fire to get to today’s word, auto-da-fé:

Au·to-da-fé  noun  \ô-tō-də-‘fā\

1. the public burning of heretics condemned by the Spanish Inquisition.

Date: early 18th century.

Origin: Portuguese, ato de fé, which means, “Act of faith.”

Example: But the day came when the powerful arm of the Inquisition caught up with him, and he was accused of living as a Jew. He was summarily tried and sentenced to death by auto-da-fé.Menachem Posner

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

2 thoughts on “Odd Words: Auto-da-fé

  1. “Auscultate” goes with “palpate”. I wonder if it has any other siblings?

    The meaning of “auto-da-fé” is also quite familiar to me, but it’s interesting that I’d never thought of it as a singular noun (probably because I also knew it came from “act of faith”).

    That’s an interesting painting, in part because I don’t usually associate the Eastern Church with burning heretics (as opposed to pogroms). I don’t know why not, though — of course they would have.

    Frank, I think you might enjoy a look at the “NativLang” Youtube channel, authored by a self described language super-nerd.


    A lot of the material quickly gets too deep for me, but the videos are well produced and enthusiastic — and fascinating in the way that obscure technical knowledge and history usually are.

    • Thanks! That looks great. I’ll definitely check it out.

      Certain “palpate” goes with it — but why is “palpate” so common and “auscultate” not? I can come up with some reasons, but it’s still curious.

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