Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ—which gorily depicts the sufferings of Jesus during his last days—opens tomorrow amid great anticipation and controversy. But how did Jesus’ anguish on the cross come to be called the Passion in the first place?
The simple answer is that the English word passion referred to Jesus’ suffering long before it evolved other, more sultry meanings. Today, the word still refers to Jesus’ torments, as well as to retellings of the crucifixion in the Gospels and elsewhere, even in pieces of music. (Before Gibson’s Passion, for instance, there were Bach’s Passions.)
But the Christian meaning and its modern, carnal cousins are not entirely unrelated. In fact, the more common meanings of the word passion—strong emotion, zeal, and sexual desire—grew organically from the Christian sense over the course of several centuries.
The English word has its roots in the Latin passio, which means, simply, “suffering.” Its first recorded use is in early Latin translations of the Bible that appeared in the 2nd century A.D. and that describe the death of Jesus. The Latin word was borrowed prolifically in Old English religious texts, where its meaning remained exclusively theological. But when the Normans invaded Britain in the middle of the 11th century, their conquest infused thousands of French words—including passion, which also referred solely to the sufferings of Jesus—into the spoken language. The record is sketchy, but it seems that once passion was in use in both languages, it began to develop broader meanings. The first new senses in English referred to martyrdom and physical suffering or affliction, and by the 13th century, passion was being used to refer to any strong emotion.
The process accelerated greatly as the English vocabulary exploded in the 16th century. Many words accrued new meanings during this period; literature and vernacular poetry flourished, and a renewed interest in classical learning may have given Latin a more direct influence on the language as well. Passion, for instance, may have been shaded by an obscure definition of the Latin passio as an “affection of the mind” or “emotion.” (Etymologists believe that this more arcane meaning drew from the Greek word pathos.) Over the course of the century, the word came to signify a panoply of emotional afflictions, such as “extreme anger,” “a literary work marked by deep emotion,” and, finally, “strong sexual attraction or love.”
The first sexual usage is attributed to William Shakespeare, who wrote, in Titus Andronicus, “My sword … shall … plead my passions for Lavinia’s love.” It wasn’t a great leap from Shakespeare to the entirely modern senses of passion, which developed, with his and others’ help, over the next few decades.
Bonus Explainer: Gibson originally wanted to call his film The Passion, but he had to change the name when it turned out Miramax already had a project under development with that title. But why the “the” in “of the Christ“? The moniker is a less common alternative to just plain Christ, which is a derivation of a Latin translation of a Greek translation of the Hebrew title Messiah, which means “the Anointed.” In the Geneva and 1611 versions of the New Testament, the word “Christ” is often preceded by the word “the.”
Explainer thanks Jesse Sheidlower and Samantha Schad of the Oxford English Dictionary.