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shameless pleading

Oblate

I thought “Friar” was just a really weird first name.

Dear Word Detective: I finally looked up “oblate.” For some time I had realized it has two meanings — the adjective describing a spheroid flattened at the poles, and the noun meaning a person dedicated to religious life. Can there be a connection between these two? I can only think of the pudgy Friar Tuck — an oblate Friar. — Charlie Nunzio.

Good question, although it led me to spend an exciting 45 minutes just now doubting my own sanity. Pondering Friar Tuck, I remembered watching a Robin Hood TV series as a child, but the Wikipedia article on the Robin Hood legend makes no mention of such a show. Turns out that the series was made in England and shown in the US from 1955-59. I saw it quite a bit later in reruns. In the show, Friar Tuck was depicted, as he has been since the Robin Hood legend arose in the Middle Ages, as a very plump defrocked monk with a fondness for food but also excellent fighting skills, making him a valuable member of Robin’s merry band.

There is a connection between “oblate” in the “flattened sphere” sense and “oblate” in the religious sense, but you have to go pretty far back in the history of the word to find it, the connection is very tenuous, and it has little to do with the modern uses of the word. In other words, Friar Tuck’s rotundity had no direct connection to his occupation.

The religious sense of “oblate” comes from its use in the Roman Catholic Church since the 17th century. An “oblate” is a person devoted to religious work, perhaps even a member of a monastic order, but one who is not bound by formal vows. “Oblates” observe some, perhaps most, of the rules of an order or other church organization but remain part of the secular world. “Oblate” in this sense can be either a noun or an adjective. The root of this “oblate” is the Latin “oblatus,” the past participle of “offerre,” literally “to bring forward.” That “offerre” was also the source of our English “offer,” the original sense of which was “to offer up as an act of religious devotion.” The “oblate” is thus one who “offers” devotion, prayer and good works to the church. An “oblation” is an offering to a church or deity as a symbol of pious devotion.

That all makes perfect sense; a religious adherent offering spiritual devotion and/or material wealth to the church is known by the Latin word for “offerer.” Using the same word to mean “a spheroid flattened at the poles” (picture a basketball being sat on by a large child) takes a bit of explaining. The secret here is that the two “oblates” are not really the same word.

To understand this “oblate,” we start at the suspiciously similar word “prolate,” taken from the Latin “prolatus,” past participle of “proferre,” meaning “to produce, prolong, extend” (“pro,” forward, plus “ferre,” to bring). The sense of “prolate” meaning “extend” was used in the early 17th century by mathematicians and astronomers to describe a sphere or ellipsis lengthened on the polar axis, i.e., stretched a bit at top and bottom (“A few stars now had pierced the blue, and in the east there shone brightly a prolate moon.” H.G. Wells, 1908).

But this use meant that another term was needed to describe spheres, etc., stretched sideways. So “ob,” a Latin prefix meaning vaguely “in the direction of” was substituted for “pro,” and bingo, another, separately created “oblate,” having nothing to do with religion or coins in the collection plate. So Friar Tuck has nothing much to do with “oblate,” but his impressive belt size may serve as a good way to remember the difference between “prolate” and “oblate.”

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