A dear friend of mine used to love the exclamation “O altitudo!” for its undoubted phonesthetic magnificence, having encountered it in Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici (1643):

IX. As for those wingy Mysteries in Divinity, and airy subtleties in Religion, which have unhing’d the brains of better heads, they never stretched the Pia Mater of mine. Methinks there be not impossibilities enough in Religion for an active faith; the deepest Mysteries ours contains have not only been illustrated, but maintained, by Syllogism and the rule of Reason. I love to lose my self in a mystery, to pursue my Reason to an O altitudo!

It recently occurred to me to wonder where Browne got it, and having found out (no thanks to Bartlett’s, which most uncharacteristically doesn’t trace it to its source) I thought I’d share it with you. It’s from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, Chapter 11, verse 33 in the Vulgate: o altitudo divitiarum sapientiae et scientiae Dei! quam inconprehensibilia sunt iudicia eius et investigabiles viae eius! Or, in the words of the Authorized Version: “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!” Noble rhetoric, whatever one thinks of the subject.


  1. aldiboronti says:

    Browne is magnificent, and not the least interesting of his works is the Pseudodoxia Epidemica, or Enquiries into Common and Vulgar Errors.
    “A third cause of common Errors is the Credulity of men, that is, an easie assent to what is obtruded, or a believing at first ear what is delivered by others. This is a weakness in the understanding, without examination assenting unto things, which from their Natures and Causes do carry no perswasion; whereby men often swallow falsities for truths, dubiosities for certainties, feasibilities for possibilities, and things impossible as possibilities themselves.”
    Some things don’t change.

  2. That’s one of my favorite graduals during the church year. Or it was until I converted to the ELCA — none of the ELCA parishes I’ve been to have a gradual during their services. The version I remember goes, “O the depths of the riches and the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable His judgments, and His paths beyond tracing out!”

  3. Isn’t it amusing that ‘altitudo’ gets translated as ‘depth’, exactly the opposite of its original meaning?

  4. Actually, it’s not. Altus means both ‘high’ and ‘deep,’ so you have to pick one or the other when translating, and ‘depth’ seems good here.

  5. Isn’t there a list somewhere on the internet of words like altus? “Cleave” is one you hear about in English, but I think that’s a little bit of a cheat, since the pair is “cleave” and “cleave to”.

  6. I don’t really think this fits into the auto-antonym category, since the only opposition between ‘high’ and ‘deep’ is the lexical one created by English vocabulary — if you think about it, the real-world situation is the same. It just depends on where you’re looking from.

  7. Romulo Ehalt says:

    L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between starts the paragraph where he mentions a statue of Thomas Browne with “O altitudo!” Maybe the expression was common knowledge at some point of the early 20th century among Latin students?

  8. I doubt it was Latin students so much as literature students and Biblical scholars.

  9. There is a rhyming pair altissimus mons / altissimus fons ‘highest mountain / deepest spring’. But even though the original sense ‘large in the vertical dimension’ was clearly neutral, AFAIK all the Romance languages have specialized it to mean ‘high’, using descendants of profundus, etymologically < 'bottom', to mean 'deep'.

    As for cleave, it is mere accidental homonymy: sound change caused two distinct Old English verbs to merge phonologically, like sound ‘noise’ < sonus, sound ‘healthy’ < sanus, and native sound ‘arm of the sea’.

  10. In Danish, if I were standing at the edge of a canyon I’d say der er dybt ned (roughly ‘it’s a deep fall’) — but on the roof of a tall building it would be der er højt ned (‘it’s a high fall’). And I’m not alone, as you see.

    The point is that you can combine ‘high’ with the direction down, I don’t think that works in English.

Speak Your Mind