With college application essays and people constantly asking me what I plan to do with my life once I graduate, I have found myself using the word “passion” more and more frequently. I have a passion for music, literature is my passion, I want to get my degree in something I am passionate about. Heavens, just last week I announced to my family that I have a passion for whipped cream as I ate it by the spoonful. This word has slipped into my everyday vocabulary, which is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, it isn’t a forbidden four-letterer. However, when I used “passion” to describe my whipped cream addiction, I realized that I had committed a word crime almost as appalling as saying “legit” or “totes,” for I had taken a word with intense meaning and used it to describe a dessert topping.
So what is the actual meaning of this word? We hear it thrown around in so many ways that it is hard to say for sure without investigating its etymology, which is another fun word meaning the history of words. (Not to be confused with entomology, which is the study of insects and not quite as fun.) The word “passion” was first used in the early Christian church, taken from the Latin “passionem”, meaning “suffering” or “enduring.” The term was used in relation to the suffering of Christ at the cross. Taken by this definition, the “St. Matthew Passion” of Bach, one of my favorite musical works (seriously, I dare you to listen to that male alto and not sob at the beauty), makes much more sense and can be understood as tracing the sufferings and endurance- the Gospel of Christ- according to St. Matthew.
Continuing forward (if anyone is still actually interested…), by the early 13th century, the term had evolved to “patheo” in Latin and soon after “pathos” in Greek. (Starting to look a little more familiar!) The word now extended to refer to the sufferings of the Christian martyrs, following in the footsteps of their Savior. Its meaning too had expanded to included not only suffering, but intense emotion and strong desire. This should not necessarily be understood as romantic desire, as it is commonly viewed today, but the pure desire of the martyrs to live rightly and walk with God. “Passion” or its variations did not come to refer to sensual desire or romantic love until the late 1500s. In fact, the word did not even refer to a “strong enthusiasm or liking” until the early 1600s, making its common definition a recent development.
Okay, if you have stuck through my little etymology sermon, thank you. Now, let’s wrap this up nicely, shall we? I only scratched the surface of the etymology of this particular word, but I think that it is obvious that “passion” was never meant to define my sweet tooth. However, I believe that I have not been wrong in saying that I have a passion for music and a passion for literature. (Excuse my italics; I know many authors are turning in their graves as I type, but I need them!) Why? Because my relationship with music and literature match the definition of this word, regardless of its evolution.
First of all, I suffer for music and literature, not martyrdom by any means, but to some extent, there is a struggle. Paper cuts, sore muscles from playing Chopin, tired nights of rehearsals, the despair of writer’s block. Goodness, I bled one time when practicing a pizzicato section for orchestra! But despite the obstacles – from the pen callus on my middle finger to the violin hickey on my neck- I keep practicing and writing and writing and practicing. Do I suffer for whipped cream? No…
I also have a love for these pursuits and the desire to achieve excellence as both a musician and a writer. This desire guides me as that of the martyrs did. I want to play music to the best of my ability and the Glory of God, so I practice harder; I want to author something thought-provoking and impactful, so I journal and blog for experience. The goals are there, leading me to walk the paths to reach them, further exhibiting my passion as not just emotional, but practical.
Finally, even if passion is taken at its most basic meaning, enthusiasm or liking, I certainly have it. Anyone who has ever talked to me knows that I do not shut up once the conversation turns to books or music. Granted, this is mostly because I don’t talk to anyone who doesn’t talk about these subjects. Still, the fact that I ask to smell other people’s copies of Wuthering Heights during AP Literature and obsess over tenor voices in choir indicates my borderline-crazy enthusiasm. Although whipped cream is delicious, I don’t think there is a fandom for it.
So there you are, a brief overview of a topic you didn’t know you needed to know: the etymology of “passion” and an example of when it is appropriate and when it is not. For the sake of the English language (and apparently also Latin and Greek), please know the true meaning of the words you use and save us all from a lot of discountenance. (See what I did there? 😉 )