On January 20, 2017, Donald Trump will be sworn in as the 45th President of the United States. This event is known as the Presidential Inauguration. In everyday usage, to inaugurate is to begin something momentous. You might say the new supermarket is inaugurated the first day it opens for business, but it is more appropriate to refer to the inaugural flight of a new Space Shuttle.
The Presidential Inauguration, technically speaking, only refers to when the president puts his hand on the Bible and swears the oath of office. The oath of office, and the fact that it is delivered by a Supreme Court justice and sworn to by the new president, is an act of pronouncement. As in a marriage ceremony, when the couple are pronounced by an officiant and then simply are married, the president-elect takes the oath of office, which amounts to saying a few words, and then is declared president.
These are examples of what linguists call "speech acts" or "performatives" — they accomplish things in the world merely through words. Of course, it takes a lot to get in a position to be pronounced Commander in Chief, but it is still important to keep in mind that the transition of power in this country rests simply on a few words, and not on violence as it still does in many places around the world. While these words, this declaration, are really all the inauguration itself amounts to, there are many ancillary events, including the inaugural address and the inaugural ball, that have come to collectively be known as the Inaugural or Inauguration Day.
In what follows I take a closer look at the word inauguration, a word that makes history while wearing its own linguistic history on its sleeve.
English got the word inauguration from the French inauguration, which meant “installation” or “consecration” It is important to remember that for most of history, the installation of a new leader was not just an event of secular government, but was also an occurrence of religious significance. These leaders were chosen by a deity, or chosen by a council or the people and blessed by a deity, which is how something can be a mere installation and a consecration at the same time. The further etymological history of the word reveals even deeper supernatural roots. The French word is drawn directly from a Late Latin word, inaugurationem, which is a form of inaugurare, which meant “take omens from the flight of birds, consecrate or install when omens are favorable (from in-, on or in, and augurare, to act as an augur, predict).”
Bound up within the word inauguration itself is the search for heavenly signs that this leader will be smiled upon and be successful. The English words augur and augury come from the same root and also deal with omens and signs indicating good and bad fortune. Today we may dismiss it as superstition, and it would no doubt be considered strange if the 2017 Presidential Inauguration were postponed should the flight pattern of certain birds didn't seem right. What peering into the sky or looking for other positive omens really points to is a sense that people are looking for confirmation that the right choice has been made. Given the importance of the position and the power wielded by the one holding the office of president, it is natural to want some assurance, be it from the heavens or elsewhere, that he is the right man for the job.
“We defy augury…”
Since we've identified the augur in inauguration, perhaps a few more words about it are in order. The ritual of interpreting omens and signs is an ancient one. The practice of ignoring what the signs are supposedly telling us might be just as old. Shakespeare crafted a famous speech about challenging the art of augury with sheer individual personal will.
We defy augury.
There's a special providence in
the fall of a sparrow. If it
be now, 'tis not to come;
If it be not to
come, it will be now; If it be not now, yet it will
come—the readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves, knows
what is 't
to leave betimes? Let be.
Hamlet, on the verge of the climactic duel, will not let predictions get in the way of what he is preparing for — he is ready to embrace whatever comes, and because he is at peace with both possible outcomes needs no omens, no auguries, to define his future.
Omens have taken a backseat to science and technology in the modern world. Even if you are not a suspicious person yourself, you probably know someone who throws salt over their shoulder at the mention of a "bad" person or event, who won't cross under a ladder or who has strange feelings about certain number combinations. We cannot all be as brave as Hamlet, but perhaps in small ways many of us make choices that defy predictions of doom. Maybe the superstitious bride who fears rain but goes ahead with the outdoor ceremony under cloudy skies is defying augury just a bit.
Certainly Donald Trump has defied predictions at every turn to ascend to the presidency and his inauguration on January 20th. As a new year begins and Mr. Trump is inaugurated, keep in mind that within the very word inauguration is a long history of seeking aid, comfort and reassurance.
Adam Cooper studied linguistics at Brandeis University and The University of Chicago. Since 2010, he has been working with The Endangered Language Alliance in New York City on documentation and preservation projects.Click here to read other articles by Adam Cooper
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