Challenging Word of the Week: haruspex

(huh RUS peks, HAIR uh speks) noun

This was the title, in ancient Rome, of a lower order of priests who prophesied by examining the entrails of animals killed in sacrifice. The custom was handed down by the Etruscans. The practice is known as haruspication (hair us puh KAY shun) or haruspicy (huh RUS puh see). The verb is haruspicate (huh RUS puh kate). Haruspex is a Latin word, base on Etruscan haru, Latin hira (entrail) plus specere (to look at: spexi means “I have inspected’). The Roman Censor (a government official) Cato (234-149 B.C.) was not impressed by this type of divination. He said: “I wonder how one haruspex can keep from laughing when he sees another.” This made him very unpopular with haruspices.

My example: The modern haruspex has replaced animal entrails with complex computer models for economic forecasts. The resulting prophesies, while similarly apt to be self-fulfilling, aren’t necessarily more accurate — but they are certainly less messy. Today’s haruspices, like their earlier counterparts, have perfected the ability to take each other seriously, at least in public.

From the book, “1000 Most Challenging Words” by Norman W. Schur, ©1987 by the Ballantine Reference Library, Random House. I post a weekly “Challenging Words” definition to call more attention to this delightful book and to promote interesting word usage in the blogosphere. I challenge other bloggers to work the current word into a post sometime in the coming week. If you manage to do so, please leave a comment or a link to where I can find it. Previous words in this series can be found under the appropriate Category heading in the right-hand sidebar.

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