I am a lover of words, a self-proclaimed philologist. In fact, you might say I’m passionate about them… One of my favourite things about words is seeing how they change over time, figuring out they came to mean what they do today. This is a fascinating process, and so I’ve decided to share it with you! What follows is a short essay on the word passion and how it has developed over the last several hundred years.
Passion is a common word in today’s society, but is rarely used for its original meaning. It is one of the many words that live in the English language whose meaning has not remained static. The definition of passion is complex; it has shifted many times throughout history, leaving behind a variety of meanings scattered across time. By following the word chronologically, one can see how passion has gradually but significantly evolved from an explicitly religious term concerning suffering to the modern equivalent of enthusiasm or love.
The word passion originally comes from the Latin word passio, meaning to suffer or endure. Most commonly, passion referred to the Passion of Christ, or the last days of Christ’s life. According to the New 20th Century Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, passion came to describe Jesus’ suffering because “the synoptic Gospels show a remarkable similarity of wording in telling how Jesus told his disciples about the sequence of events: ‘The Son of man must suffer many things’” (Douglas and Clouse). Since Jesus underwent the furthest extent of suffering, passion is most fitting to describe His story. In certain ways, this Christian meaning of passion has endured to the present time: Passion plays, for example, are theatrical retellings of the gospel story. Some great composers, such as Johann Sebastian Bach, wrote cantatas called passions, relating the various gospels’ retellings of Christ’s suffering in musical form, which are still performed today.
Another way in which this definition of passion is preserved in modern English is through the word passion fruit, more specifically, its flower. When Europeans came to South America in the 1600s, they used an indigenous flower as a mnemonic device to explain the gospel to the native inhabitants. The ten bottom petals represented the ten faithful apostles; the corona, the crown of thorns; the five stamens, the five wounds of Christ; and the three stigmas, the three nails. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “the lobed leaves and tendrils of the plant were also said to represent the hands and scourges of Jesus’s torturers” (“passion flower, n.”). As a result, it was nicknamed the passion flower, and the name continues to this day.
Although the earliest meaning of passion mostly referred to Christ’s suffering, the word also referred to enduring hardship and suffering in general. Sometimes this definition was applied to a specific “narrative account of the suffering and martyrdom of a saint,” imitating the Passion of Christ, but any great affliction could be considered a passion (“passion, n.,” def. 2). This definition of passion is pretty much obsolete in the twenty-first century, and the common term used nowadays in its place would be tribulation. However, there is one word still in use which somewhat preserves passion in the sense of suffering: compassion. Compassion is a combination of passion and the Latinate prefix -com meaning with; literally, the word means “suffering with,” and occurs “when a person is moved by the suffering or distress of another,” takes on someone else’s pain, and bears it with him (“compassion, n.,” def. 2). Around the fourteenth century, passion as an affliction turned into more of a medical word. Physically, it could signify anything from a broken bone to a terminal disease, and this sense of the meaning is completely obsolete today. However, it could also signify mental illnesses or seizures, and consequently, passion also came to describe psychotic fits or episodes of madness: anything that provoked a “state marked by… strong excitement, agitation, or other intense emotion” (“passion, n.,” def. 6).
By the fifteenth century, the definition of passion had extended again to include any strong impulse or emotional response, not necessarily related to mental illness; usually it described a negative emotion such as a hatred, anger, or agitation, but also sometimes desire. By the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the original meaning of passion only endured in religious spheres, and the concept of passion as general suffering and affliction was nearly obsolete; the strongly emotional sense of the word, however, grew steadily in usage. It developed a strong reference to “sexual desire or impulses,” which was adopted in the literary and philosophical spheres, often personified and pitted against Reason or Virtue (“passion, n.,” def. 8). As morality and religion became less prevalent in society, however, the stigma attached to sexual passion dissipated, leaving the word with amorous and vaguely risqué connotations. This romantic sense of passion has never faded, and is still in common use today.
From the latter half of the seventeenth century until modern day, the definition of passion broadened even more, becoming a word to describe interest, enjoyment, and “intense enthusiasm” in certain activities and hobbies (“passion, n.,” def. 9). Even in evangelical Christian circles, the modern definition of passion is generally preferred over the traditionally Christian one. Michael Kendrick, in his book Your Blueprint for Life: How to Align Your Passions, Gifts, and Calling with Eternity in Mind, states that “everyone has a passion for something. You were born with it… Particular things interest you more than others. These are your passions” (35). This offhand, matter of fact description of passion is fairly accurate: for the 21st century, passion can be as simple as preferring one activity over another, becoming synonymous with words such as love, motivation, and enthusiasm.
Clearly, passion has undergone a transformation from its original meaning. Modern, supposedly inspiring expressions, such as “Follow your passion” or “Do it with passion or not at all,” would have meant something entirely different in previous centuries, when passion referred to pain and suffering or fits of madness. Many of its original definitions have become obsolete, or else only preserved in other words, such as compassion or passion fruit. The word’s current meaning is both distorted and diluted from its original definition. Passion seems to be one of the English language’s ever-changing words; only time will tell if it will continue its metamorphosis.
“compassion, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2017. Web. 9 October 2017.
Kendrick, Michael. Your Blueprint for Life: How to Align Your Passions, Gifts, and Calling with Eternity in Mind. Nelson Books: Nashville, Tennessee, 2015. Print.
“Passion.” New 20th-Century Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge. 2nd ed. Eds. J.D. Douglas and Robert G. Clouse. Baker Book House: Grand Rapids, MI, 1991. Print.
“passion, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2017. Web. 5 October 2017.
“passion flower, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2017. Web. 5 October 2017.