The Changing Meanings of the Word ‘Passion’ May 14, 2011

The word ‘passion’ has gone through some fascinating gyrations in its meaning, at least in English. First, it is clearly related to the word ‘passive,’ which is the opposite of ‘active.’ And it originally refers to someone who receives action rather than someone who does action. Other words that are related are ‘patient,’ one who suffers the attention of a doctor or a medical procedure, and ‘patience,’ defined by Bill Gothard 40 years ago as the virtue enabling us to put up with a situation without giving God a deadline to remove it! [I will confess that I myself am a master of what C. S. Lewis, in Screwtape Letter XXX, calls the “reasonable period.”]

The next common meaning of the term Passion is the suffering and death of Jesus Christ on our behalf. I may put in a plug here for the Museum of Biblical Art ( in New York City, which is currently hosting an exhibit called Passion in Venice, images of the suffering Christ which the Venice area produced about 500 years ago. The average uneducated individual, seeing such a title, would probably think of Casanova! And I might be thinking of stand-up paddleboarding, for which Venice would be a great place. But no, the exhibition is about neither of those.

Interestingly enough, right after I went to see the Passion in Venice, while we’re on the subject, I went with an architect friend to see a little presentation on the ‘passive house.’ This is an idea thought up in Germany, about a house that does not leak heat or cold but conserves energy and needs less to heat or cool it. Yet another meaning in that family of words.

And there is the fruit that the Hawaiians call the liliko’I and the rest of us call the passion fruit. No, it is not called that because it’s any kind of aphrodisiac! Rather, features of the flower were associated with the passion of Christ.

The next meaning of the word ‘passion’ to come into general use was for negative emotions, like anger, or evil desires, which had to be subdued by ‘reason,’ which does not mean, in this context, mere rationality, but what we know to be the right thing to do. Of course most desires, like self-preservation, are not wrong except in a particular context, and so are most emotions, like anger. I don’t know enough Greek, to be candid, to know whether the Greek word in Aristotle, etc., rendered ‘passion’ here is the same as the Greek word used to describe the sufferings of Christ; I doubt it, so it is curious that the formerly Latin Christian world uses the same word for both.

Then we come to the fourth meaning, the one most often used today. You are supposed, today, to figure out your ‘passion’ in order to find out what your calling in life is! And hopefully your ‘passion’ will line up in some way with your talents, or you have a real problem. Unless you subscribe, that is, to the American philosophy that I call Disneyism, which would tell us that if we pursue our ‘passions’ and ‘dreams’ we will get the necessary talents. I doubt this. I will only quote Bob Dylan, who sang on the album Slow Train Coming in 1979, “You can dream big dreams, baby, but to dream you’ve got to be asleep”!

I can’t say I know what to make of all this, but it is interesting if you’re into philology, and confusing if you’re not!

One Comments
jelowsky 05/15/2011

I found it quite interesting. You made me curious as to what Aristotle used in comparison to what the New Testament uses for Christ’s suffering. Aristotle used the Greek word ‘akrisia.’ The New  Testament, the Creeds, etc., instead use the root ‘pascho‘ which in the creed is rendered as the passive participle pathonta. As you note, the Latin chose to use ‘pathos‘ to designate Aristotle’s idea and the Christian idea of suffering. Akrisia is used in the New Testament by Paul in 1 Cor 7:5 and by Jesus (via Matthew) in Matthew 23:25. The Latin counterpart in Matthew in Jerome’s Vulgate is inmunditia (for Matthew) but in 1 Corinthians 7:5 he translates akrisia as ‘incontinentiam.’ Jerome obviously thought it was important to keep the distinction – at least in his translations. Pascho, in Greek originally meant to suffer evil, but later came, with additions, to be used for experiencing anything that might happen to someone, according to Gerhard Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. These additions would show whether the use was ‘in malam‘ or ‘bonam partem,’ which meant, depending on the addition that you could experience either evil, or good. The preponderance of usage was with reference to evil that befell a person. But both were present. This still doesn’t answer your question, but my own thinking is that as the word began to be associated with the heart and its suffering, or long suffering, this would explain how it came to be associated with the desires and passions. Just my two cents. Thanks for an interesting foray in philology.

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