nativity: Birth, in particular the birth of Jesus Christ

The Adoration Of The Shepherds, by Matthias Stom
The Adoration Of The Shepherds, by Matthias Stom

This is the month, and this the happy morn,
Wherein the Son of Heav’n’s eternal King,
Of wedded Maid, and Virgin Mother born,
Our great redemption from above did bring;
For so the holy sages once did sing,
That he our deadly forfeit should release,
And with his Father work us a perpetual peace.

John MiltonOn The Morning Of Christ’s Nativity” (1645)

Nativity paintings, like Stom’s above, have been largely replaced by  little dioramas, featuring toy figures of shepherds, wise men, farm animals, and the holy family. Getting the figures and props of a “Nativity Scene” out of their box and setting them out in dramatic poses under the Christmas tree was a childhood ritual for many kids, when I was growing up. (And I’d have killed for a luminous baby Jesus like the one in the painting.)

Nativity comes to us via French from the Latin phrase in nativitate Domini, “at the birth of the Lord” and so its earliest usage in English, in the fourteenth century, relates specifically to the birth of Christ. Nativitate is the ablative singular of nativitas, “birth”, which has a related adjective nativus, “inborn”, and a verb nasci, “to be born”.

The nat- stem cropped up in a lot of Latin words. Nativus gives us native, which can mean both “inborn” (as in “native wit”) and “borne in a particular place”. Natio, “race, people”, implied a group of people all born in the same place, from which we derive nation. Hence, the Native Americans of the United States, and the First Nations of Canada. The French derived their word naïve (feminine, naïf) from nativus. The dieresis on the “i” reminds them to pronounce the “a” and “i” separately, rather than as a diphthong “ai”—in effect, it’s a relic of the departed “t” that used to separate the two vowels. The implication is that a person in a “native” state is rather simple and unsophisticated, and that’s the sense we’ve adopted in English—though nowadays we increasingly drop the dieresis accent, and ignore the masculine/feminine distinction, settling for plain naive.

Latin natura meant “character”, understood as an inborn property, present from birth. From which we derive nature, meaning a fundamental and original property. From there, we can go on to designate the natural world as being distinct from the world that humanity has built for itself. Things that are unnatural are tainted to the extent that they deviate from what we think of as natural, whereas things that are supernatural are more powerful than mere nature. A naturian is a person who studies the natural world—a “natural philosopher”; not to be confused with a naturist, who is a person who indulges in communal nudity. The derivation of the latter word is unclear—naturism originally meant “nature worship”, so perhaps modern naturism derives from that; or perhaps it refers to nudity as being a natural state for humans. In either case, the word was officially adopted in 1961 by the British Sun Bathing Association, replacing the previous term, nudism. Naturesse is a fine old word for “affection” or “generosity”, charmingly implying that these are natural attributes of humanity. And naturopathy is the belief that diseases can be treated using only the products of the natural world.

Latin natus (sometimes gnatus) meant “offspring”. Something innate is inborn. Things that are connate are “born together”—coming from the same origin or arising at the same time. We more often see this word in the form cognate, which applies to words with common etymological origins.

From the Latin verb nasci, “to be born”, we get our adjective nascent, “in the act of being born or brought forth”. Something innascible is not subject to being born—a word that seems only to be applied to the Christian concept of God the Father. Something renascent is being born again; and although we have the French to thank for the word Renaissance, we have the Italians to thank for the fourteenth-century cultural revival that the word designates.

Finally, there’s the Latin natalis, “pertaining to birth”, from which we get our word natal, with the same meaning. In 1497 the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, having rounded the southernmost point of Africa, spent Christmas Day travelling along a northward-trending coast which he called Terra Natalis, because the Portuguese word for Christmas Day is Natal. This became the site of the British settlement of Port Natal (now Durban). The hinterland of Port Natal was subsequently fought over by Zulus, British and Boers, and is now the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal.

So from English Nativity I’ve worked my way to Portuguese Natal—both of which refer to Christmas Day. If you’re planning on celebrating, in whatever modified form the Current Unpleasantness permits, have a good one.

Trilingual welcome sign, KwaZulu-Natal
Trilingual welcome sign, KwaZulu-Natal

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