On Holiness

Chatterbox passes on the following dispatch from Robert Noah, aka Pappy Chatterbox, author of The Man Who Stole the Mona Lisa  (“If you read one book this year, make it this one! If you read two books this year, read this one and then read something else!”–Chatterbox):

In “Weyrich Goes Off the Grid,” Chatterbox noted Paul Weyrich’s recent suggestion that conservatives safeguard themselves against the infectious dangers of a hostile majority culture, even if it meant isolating themselves from it in some sterile corner. Said Weyrich: This Cultural Marxism has “so gripped the body politic … that it is even affecting the Church. … I would point out to you that the word ‘holy’ means ‘set apart,’ and that it is not against our tradition to be, in fact, ‘set apart’.”

But after searching several dictionaries I am happy to report that holy does not have that meaning, under which I suppose prison inmates could be referred to as holy, since, if nothing else, they are set apart. The Random House Unabridged recites the several definitions all of us know, and traces the word back through the Middle English holi to the Old English, halig or hal, meaning “whole,” which I suppose survives today in “holistic.”

Weyrich’s confusion may result (although it’s hard to see how it could) from the definitions in both American Heritage, which says: “Specified or set apart for a religious purpose: a holy place (italics theirs),” and in the Shorter OED which says: “Of a thing, place, etc., kept or regarded as sacred; set apart for religious use or observance; consecrated.” It would seem easy enough to make the distinction between “set apart,” and “set apart for religious use.” Everyone else seems able to, and without a bit of trouble.

–Timothy Noah