Wednesday, September 30, 2015

New Word Wednesday: imprimatur

When we're talking about a group censoring books (and thus ideas) — as I did yesterday in my post about censorship in the Catholic Church — it's fitting that we also talk about the opposite. True, over the last 450 years, the Catholic Church has tried to weed out and protect its pious members from the dangers of unethical, erroneous, and heretical ideas, but most books go through the process unscathed and make it to publication.

Which brings us to today's word: imprimatur.

Authors — especially Catholic authors writing about ecclesiastical subjects — submit their works to Church authorities to be reviewed before being published. If the Church authorities find nothing wrong with the text, they give it their imprimatur. Literally, they write the word imprimatur on it.

Imprimatur is a New Latin word based on imprimere, "to print," and means "let it be printed." When such a book is then mass produced, the imprimatur is printed as well, letting readers know that it's safe. An imprimatur is not an endorsement of the book, merely an acknowledgment that it does not contain ideas that contradict Catholic doctrine. Put another way, the imprimatur indicates what is not in the book, not what is in the book.

The imprimatur is also normally accompanied by a nihil obstat (Latin for "nothing hinders"), a short declaration by someone of authority stating that there is nothing objectionable in the book.

Over time, imprimatur has entered the English language beyond the Catholic Church to describe any type of approval or sanction that is granted.

From Lord Byron's Don Juan:

O! ye, who make the fortunes of all books!
   Benign Ceruleans of the second sex!
Who advertise new poems by your looks,
   Your 'imprimatur' will ye not annex?