Inauguration Day is nearing in the United States. We all know that this is the day a president elect is sworn in on their office. But where does the term “inauguration” come from? Yes, from the Latin language. But what does it mean?
Let’s go back to the ancient Romans and their customs. Whenever there was a government plan or a major undertaking of a pater familias, the father of an (important) family, officials were called in to determine whether the plans would result favorably or not. These officials were called augurs. It is known that they had square temples in Nature where they watched for signs from the latter which they contemplated and interpreted. They watched all kinds of natural “signs”, but in the end it came down to the flight of birds, the kind of birds that were flying, how they were flying, where they were flying.
As “avis” is the Latin word for bird, and the Latin letter for “U” when hewn in stone, looks like a “V” (that was easier than trying for a curve, obviously), this might explain the first syllable in the word “augur”. The second syllable “gur” is a little less obvious; there are interpretations that deem the origin from the word “garrire” (i.e. talk), “gerrire” (i.e. behave), or “gustus” (inspector). Whichever, I’m pretty sure these officials appointed by the emperors were paid well when asked to do their duty. One of the most famous augurs, by the way, was Marcus Tullius Cicero, who also held the office of a senator. Ironically, Cicero himself disputed the reliability of an augur’s interpretations, by the way!
The Latin term “inauguratio” applied only to the determination whether somebody would be worthy to hold a high official position; it was a stage BEFORE swearing in that person. Which means that the English term “inauguration” has taken a shift as to its original meaning. Interesting, isn’t it? And in Italian, “auguri” today is a well-wishing “congratulations!” – which takes it even a step farther …
There were always a number of augurs at work at the same time. They gathered their observations and discussed them. And then the highest augur (and only he!) would bring up the negative signs he had observed – so the entire discussion was continued on a new note. Talking efficiency – why didn’t he say so earlier?! Anyhow, I didn’t find anything that tells us how long the augurs were supposed to look for signs. Nor whether they were all in one and the same temple or each had their own. Whether these temples were far from Rome, which would take up some traveling time, as well. So, “auspices” (i.e. watching the birds in a wider sense) would take a while and then some, and then there would be the revelation of the determination. What a huge ceremony! And how costly must it have been to pay a group of people to do this. Sometimes it would be just about plans about the increase of health, or success, or riches. Sometimes it would be about installing somebody in an office.
Just imagine that your fate lay in the hands of a number of augurs watching hens pick their corn or swallows flying over a river or whatever else there might come up and determined as significant! In the modern world, we have become our own augurs. Okay, our gut feelings sometimes betray us as much as the flight of a bird might. We make decisions based on our desires or on what we have determined from research. We try, and we err, or not. And the birds couldn’t care less whether we use them in our calculations.