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shameless pleading

Secular

I’ve always thought “stagflation” should have to do with inflatable deer.

Dear Word Detective:  Lately there have been financial reports about the possibility of “secular stagnation,” meaning long-lasting economic doldrums. Checking my trusty Webster’s, I found “secular” has two clusters of meanings. One I was familiar with, meaning basically “non-religious.” The other has to do with long periods of time, meaning “long-lasting” or occurring once in a great while. Are these two senses related? Here I always thought of religion as being concerned with the long view — eternity — and the non-religious as being more concerned with the here and now. — Ken Lerner.

Ah yes, the doldrums, land of disenchantment, where boredom reigns and progress of any kind is elusive. Not quite what you want in an economic system modelled on voracious sharks. The original early 18th century “doldrum” (the term is related to “dull”) was just a stupid or sleepy fellow. In the plural “doldrums,” it means a state of drowsiness, lethargy or depression. In a geographical sense, “the doldrums” are the equatorial latitudes once known to sailors on square-riggers for the lack of wind that could becalm and strand a ship for weeks.

“Secular” is an interesting word with two very different meanings. As you note, most people know it in the sense of “non-religious,” usually encountered in our ever-popular public debates over the relationship between church and state, or the “spiritual” versus the “secular” in various deep-thinking contexts. But “secular” also carries the sense of “long-term” or “lasting for a very long time.” To a scientist, for instance, “secular trees” are those that may be hundreds of years old.

The two senses are very different, but “secular” is considered one word, although the two branches of meaning have followed slightly different evolutionary paths. The root of both branches is the Latin “saeculum,” meaning “generation or age,” which produced the adjective “saecularis,” meaning “pertaining or belonging to an age.” In the early Christian church, “saecularis” was used to mean the temporal world, measured in years, as distinct from the immeasurable and eternal spiritual world. Filtered through the Old French “seculer,” it became our English “secular” in the common “non-religious, worldly” sense.

The other branch of development took the Latin “saecularis” more literally in the sense of “belonging to an age or generation” and produced a sense of “secular” meaning “of long duration” or “happening only at great intervals.” One of the earliest uses of this sense, in fact, was the Roman “ludi saeculares,” games, plays and shows that lasted for three days but were held only once each “age,” then a period of 120 years. Most modern uses of this sense of “secular” are either scientific (especially with regard to slow changes in astronomical or geological processes) or in reference to economic states that are regarded as unchanging over a long period.

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