Perizoma. It is a Latin word with an origin in Greek; it means “loincloth.” In classical times, the term was used sparingly; there are not too terribly many documented uses of it in the Patrologia Latina. Yet the word has a fascinating history.
In Jerome’s Vulgate, perizoma is used twice: once to refer to the garment that Adam tied around his waist after he ate from the Tree of Knowledge, and once to refer to the garment worn by Christ upon the Cross. Within the Christian tradition, and with great rhetorical beauty and sensitivity to the Christological implications of the Fall, Jerome created — by word choice alone — a strong and enduring link between the fall of Man and Man’s salvation.
Because of Jerome, perizoma acquired an almost exclusively theological connotation; in fact, there are perhaps only two attested uses of the word in a non-religious setting after the Vulgate was widely circulated.
I thought about perizoma yesterday as I reflected on a conversation with Becca. I had met her at a restaurant a week ago to review the presentation on Beaumarchais that she was to deliver at a conference last Saturday. At one point, we had a sideline conversation about the degree to which the language and plot structures he used in The Marriage of Figaro reflected feminist themes.
What struck me about the whole idea of identifying proto-feminist thought in an 18th-century play wasn’t anything defective in Becca’s thesis, per se, but in the entirely natural assumption we all share, in using contemporary concepts applied without revision to past events. Historiographers call this the historical fallacy, and with good reason: Ideas evolve over time, and judging the past from the perspective of the present is unfair to the past and prejudicial in the present’s favor.
The historical fallacy is significant because, in linguistic terms, perizoma switched connotation so rapidly. A word that meant one thing, a mere half-century later, really came to mean something else entirely. Yet the radical language shift that occurred after Jerome may well be happening more frequently, before our very eyes.
One of my favorite anecdotes, pace George Will, is of a harried British commander working the evacuation at Dunkirk. Pressed for time, he signaled just three simple words to the Admiralty: “If be not.” He knew that the message — which was a psalm reference — would be immediately and clearly understood, and would communicate more than a detailed situation report ever could.
Today, our pool of shared meaning seems to have something of an algae problem. References to scriptural passages, to Shakespeare, even to art film or the classics, are likely to be understood by a rare minority. Pop culture isn’t universally followed, either, so it’s entirely possible that two American citizens could have radically different understandings of the world, with almost no appreciable overlap in content.
Even our words have changed, and rapidly. Neologisms aside, old standbys switch with breathtaking speed. Niggardly is out; the first two syllables condemn that word to the ash-heap of usage. Liberal is a swear word for many who once bore it proudly. Queer went from being a term of disparagement to a technical term within the academy, to being embraced by the very people against whom it was considered an epithet.
Read any random newspaper issue from 1955. Words like conservative are used as slurs, and negro is considered utterly neutral. Today, neither understanding holds.
Words didn’t used to change connotation or even denotation, this quickly. Perizoma is worthy of study precisely because it is something of an odd duck. That the phenomenon of radical connotative shift is truckin’ along today is not insignificant, nor are the related and proliferating opportunities for historical fallacies.