The human brain evidently contains an app whose function is to look for meaning, significance and signification.  That, combined with the strong imperative to control the future, or at least know it, has led human beings to assign meaning to words, events and even objects in a manner useful when done with discretion, but misleading when not subjected to rational appraisal.

  • Heard outside the classroom, one student speaking to another:
    “Has it occurred to you that it didn’t mean anything at all?”
  • Cicero on haruspices:
    vetus autem illud Catonis admodum scitum est, qui mirari se aiebat quod non rideret haruspex haruspicem cum vidisset.
      That old saying of Cato is very well known: he said he was surprised that when one haruspex saw another he did not burst out laughing.    – Cicero, De Divinatione II, 24, 51
  • Tacitus on astrologers:
    genus hominum potentibus infidum, sperantibus fallax, quod in civitate nostra et vetabitur semper et retinebitur.
      A species of people treacherous to those in power and deceiving to those who are ambitious for it: in our city they will always be outlawed—and retained.    – Tacitus, Histories I.22
  • Charles Mackay on omens:
    Among the other means of self-annoyance upon which men have stumbled, in their vain hope of discovering the future, signs and omens hold a conspicuous place…
    Many fallacies and delusions have been crushed under the foot of Time… but this has been left unscathed, to frighten the weak minded and embitter their existence.   – Charles Mackay, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds,  Wordsworth Reference (reprint), 2006, pp.250-251

The Latin word superstitio, Lewis and Short imply, connotes this tendency to assign significance beyond what is there.

Next post: Mandarin languages.