Aspersion and Aspersions

While translating Propp’s Historical Roots of the Wondertale, my colleague Miriam Shrager and I wondered a bit over the “sprinkling” (окропление) that comes up occasionally in fairy tales, often in the context of crossing between this world and some other, magical one (“she sprinkled the door with water”). This, so claims Propp, is a remnant of the sorts of ritual sprinkling practiced in hunter-gatherer societies, often in connection with ritual sacrifice, rites of initiation, and, later, ceremonies associated with the dead’s passage to the next world, as in Ancient Egypt. It is the same word, and the same basic concept, as when a priest sprinkles holy water during a mass or other ceremony, where the word employed is “aspersion.” So in terms of our translation, this is the word to use.

But then I wondered why aspersion in this context is obviously a good thing to have done to one, while aspersions in the plural, as in the phrase “to cast aspersions upon,” which is the only way I knew the word until discovering its use in ritual sprinkling, is only ever a bad thing to have done to one. It turns out that the word has been rather productive in a linguistic sense, at least until around the latter half of the nineteenth century, when people stopped using it except in the negative casting and plural sense.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, one of the first attestations in English was, appropriately, a translation, from Latin by the “martyrologist” John Foxe, of Archbishop Courtney’s Actes and Monuments: “By the aspersion of the bloud of Iesus Christ” (1570). Shakespeare uses it in his early seventeenth-century Tempest rather loosely and with a positive inflection: “No sweet aspersion shall the heauens let fall To make this contract grow” (Act IV, i, 18), while Francis Bacon employs it in an (according to the OED) obsolete sense of “the sprinkling of an ingredient” in his Advancement of Learning: “Diuinity Morality and Policy, with great aspersion of all other artes.”

The verb “to asperse” appears even earlier, again in a translation from Latin, albeit via French, this one by William Caxton, of Virgil’s Aeneid (or as his 1490 text has it The boke yf Eneydos), while the place one keeps the holy liquid for aspersing has been Englished as an aspersoir (clearly via French again), an aspergillum, an aspersory, and an aspersorium, depending on who was doing the Englishing and when. The person who asperses is an aspersor, who may or may not be aspersive in his manner, engaging in his work aspersively.

How this relates to character is obviously figurative, but the routes by which it figured are not completely clear. Almost from its beginnings in English, the term had an evil twin, which explains William Barriffe’s quip, in a 1639 article on military discipline regarding the “private & frosty nips from aspersionating tongues.” This is the sense with which we are familiar, namely, “a damaging report; a charge that tarnishes the reputation; a calumny, slander, false insinuation.” But for some time still it could be singular, as Henry Fielding has it in his 1749 Tom Jones: “I defy all the World to cast a just Aspersion on my Character” (note the linkage already here to the verb “to cast,” which will make a stalwart pairing over the next several centuries), and it could be a verb, as George Elliot has it in her 1866 Felix Holt: “Has any one been aspersing your husband’s character?”

I have only suspicions about the routes the figuring took, but it is hinted at in this phrase from Bacon’s already quoted Advancement of Learning: “There is to bee found besides the Theologicall sence, much aspersion of Philosophie,” which is echoed more explicitly in a 1781 article on friendship by William Cowper: “Aspersion is the babbler’s trade, To listen is to lend him aid.” Such pronouncements suggest a shared belief that to asperse is somehow to dabble (like a babbler), to dilute (as in to asperse Philosophie), or simply to avoid engaging in something seriously. Such an idea could have arisen from a sense that is implicit in the baptismal usage, where aspersion substitutes for the real thing, as when William Maskell points out in an 1849 history of Anglican rituals, “St. Peter… baptized five thousand on one day; but this must have been by aspersion.”

I wonder too about notions of impurity associated with speckling or besmirching, where something imagined as pure (e.g., a fox’s red coat) is “aspersed” with dark spots, which by extension might apply to the purity of someone’s character, as, for example, when an innocent character is aspersed with experiences, or, to make all this active, when someone, an aspersor (or, more likely in the context of this particular set of words, an aspersor’s pen — “What shall be done to thee thou aspersing Pen?” H. Hickman, 1673) has flung those little blots or spots at someone else, resulting in a visible stain. I find it intriguing that aspersion in the spiritual sense leaves no visible marks, while the plural figurative is almost invariably about having been defiled in the eyes of others.

I wonder too about the action of casting, which like the spreading of rumor or malicious gossip, can look a lot like the evil of contagion. This thought gives a completely surprising turn to William Thackeray’s 1843 observation (from his Irish sketch book): “The people, as they entered, aspersed themselves with all their might.” I suppose Propp might have agreed with this assertion.

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