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Following Australia’s success in the Rugby World Cup, the Independent on Sunday remarked that “No praise is too high for the support and the enthusiasm that the Welsh people have displayed throughout”.

Coincidentally, the day before I had been reading the proceedings of the Euralex ’98 conference on lexicography (as one does) in which Patrick Hanks of Oxford Dictionaries mentioned a memorial he had come across in Exeter Cathedral. This praised George Lavington, its bishop between 1746 and 1764, as a “Determined Enemy to Idolatry and Persecution / And successful Exposer of Pretence and Enthusiasm”.

Today enthusiasm is something to be applauded, not exposed. But it’s one of those words that has radically altered its meaning down the centuries. To Bishop Lavington, enthusiasm was a dangerous state, one not to be encouraged by an Anglican divine.

That’s because the first sense of the word came from the Greek enthousiasmos, derived from enthousia, a noun that described the state of being inspired by or possessed by a god. In turn, this came from the adjective entheos (en-, in, plus theos, as in theology). The word first appeared in English in 1608, with the same sense of being possessed by a god, or being gripped by a prophetic or poetic frenzy. Later the same century it could refer to a state in which people suffered “ill-regulated or misdirected religious emotion”, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it.

Such outbreaks of fervour in the seventeenth century were linked with sects practising worship that included shaking, quaking and speaking in tongues. Even though John Wesley condemned such sects, some of the obloquy rubbed off on the Methodists. Bishop Lavington was a confirmed opponent; in 1749 he wrote (anonymously) his famous work The Enthusiasm of Methodists and Papists compared, in which he paraded the excesses supposedly committed by the followers of Wesley. John Locke also fulminated against enthusiasts in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

Our modern sense only became the dominant one in the nineteenth century, following a slow weakening of meaning. But some notion that the condition leads to excess of passion and loss of judgement long clung to the word. Arthur Balfour, later to be British prime minister, wrote sourly in 1891: “It is unfortunate, considering that enthusiasm moves the world, that so few enthusiasts can be trusted to speak the truth”. Even now something of that suspicion remains. A colleague of mine, deeply troubled by the visionary but impractical ideas of volunteers working at a museum, once burst out “God save me from all enthusiasts!”. Bishop Lavington would have understood.

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Page created 13 Nov 1999