Reverent silence


One afternoon this week we had a fire practice, in bright sunlight. Our building is in the neoclassical style; and, with nearly a thousand people assembled on the slope that encircles the building, there was a moment when one of the deputy heads called for silence.

Improbably, there was a moment of utter stillness. In that instant, the occasion felt like the beginning of a Roman sacrifice—if only the senior staff in front of the doors could be robed in white, and grouped around an altar smoking with incense, tied to which would be a snow-white heifer, garlanded.

Meanwhile before that huge building a dazzling sun shone down on the assembled company.

I mentioned this reverie later to a colleague. He asked what Latin words would be said to the assembled company to create the hush: would it be tacete omnes? Who would say it? Why was it so important?


In fact, the formula was favete linguis, called by the heralds. Τhe Greek equivalent was εὐφημεῖτε: and the idea was that, since no word or sound of ill omen must taint the sacrifice, the safest way to avoid it was complete silence. Even if some bird or animal made a noise that the priests judged malominous, the ritual would have to recommence from the beginning.

To look up the word faveo is to be reminded of something in the Roman consciousness— namely the assumption of reciprocity: the same thinking that made a cliens responsible for the well-being of his patronus, as well as vice versa; for favere contains the notion of protecting, and the people gathered for the sacrifice were being asked, by their silence, to protect the integrity of the ritual.

That strand of meaning may be why Lewis and Short make faveo a synonym of the similar-sounding foveo.

  • Selections of usage:
    faveo: be well disposed or inclined towards, favour, promote, befriend, countenance, protect.
    foveo: warm, keep warm, cherish, protect, foster, love, support, assist, encourage, sustain.

It is tempting for younger students to think of browsing through a dictionary as a nerdish activity; but they should gradually realise that a dictionary, in its full form like the OED, is an inventory of human thought: its history, reactions, judgements, and the changes in what people have considered to be important or ridiculous or negligible.