Word of the week

Word of the week: petrified

During the general knowledge round on last Friday’s “Mastermind” John Humphrys asked the following question: Which word, now generally used to mean paralysed by fear, actually means turned to stone?

The answer (and I’ve rather given it away with the title of this piece) is “petrified”. I’ve just checked the episode again. I thought that the origin of the word was also mentioned in the question. It wasn’t, but I do know that petrified is derived from Greek. My knowledge of Greek and Latin is minimal, comprising a year of Latin at school, at age 11. We then had to choose between Latin and German; you couldn’t do both at my school, so I chose a living language ahead of a dead one, but a few Greek and Latin origins have worked their way into my mind in the intervening decades.

I have mentioned to my 10-year-old daughter, more than once, that the Greek words for Peter and rock are similar. It’s in the Gospels somewhere, and a quick search shows me that it’s Matthew 16:18.

And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter (Petros), and upon this rock (petra) I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

That quote, and the bracketed Greek words, come from this site, where it tells me that the Greek words Petros and petra mean, respectively, small rock and large rock.

I have also mentioned to my daughter that the French word for Peter is the same as the word for a stone (Pierre / pierre). This is partly because she is taking dance classes (with the actual Kevin and Karen from “Strictly Come Dancing”) at a nearby church hall. The church is called St Peter’s and I have shared with her two of the things I know about the saint: his name means stone or rock, and he is usually shown holding a set of keys. There is a set of keys painted above the door to the church. They’re the keys to the kingdom of heaven, as you probably know, but did anyone teach you that? I don’t recall anyone teaching me. It’s the sort of thing we had to work out for ourselves.

Down the road, in Hammersmith, is another St Peter’s Church, around the corner from St Peter’s School and St Peter’s Square, and the nearest pub (within sight of the church) is the Cross Keys. I was probably in my 30s before I worked out the link between Peter and the keys, and I had been drinking in that pub on and off for 20 years. At that time another nearby pub was called Le St Pierre (the French for “The Saint Peter”) but it’s now reverted to an earlier name, The Carpenters Arms.

Over the weekend I told my daughter about the “Mastermind” question that began this piece and while doing so the word “petrified” came to mind in the context of a pop song. Which #1 single mentions it in its opening lines? We were driving, and fortunately the answer came to me within a few seconds, otherwise I’d have been distracted until I was able to stop and look it up. Has it come to you yet?

It’s “I will survive” (“At first I was afraid / I was petrified”). Back in the 1990s it was always named as the most popular choice of karaoke song for women, and you can check out the official video here.




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