Most words as ostentatiously Latinate as superstition have transparent etymologies: election is from e(x)- ‘out of’ + legere ‘to choose,’ conflagration is con– ‘with, together’ + flagrāre ‘to burn,’ and so on. But superstition is different: its formation is equally transparent, super– ‘above’ + stāre ‘to stand,’ but what does that have to do with the meaning “Religious belief or practice considered to be irrational, unfounded, or based on fear or ignorance; excessively credulous belief in and reverence for the supernatural” (to quote the OED)? Today it occurred to me to see if the OED entry had been updated, and indeed it has, less than two years ago (June 2012), so their etymology is presumably the latest word on the subject; it turns out to be an old problem, and the Romans themselves wondered about it:

The semantic motivation for the word is unclear. The classical Latin author Cicero suggested (Natura Deorum 2. 28. 72) that superstitious people (superstitiōsī) were so called because they practised excessive religious devotion in order that their children might survive (superstites essent), but this is probably a folk etymology. A view held in late antiquity is that the use of the words superstitiō ‘superstition’ and superstitiōsus ‘superstitious’ with reference to religion derives from the idea that such practices were superfluous or redundant. Compare Isidore Origines 8. 3. 6 Superstitio dicta eo quod sit superflua aut superinstituta observatio ‘Superstition is so called because it is the name for redundant and superseded (religious) observation’. Classical Latin superstes was used with reference to a soldier standing over the prostrate body of a defeated enemy, and it has also been suggested that from this use, classical Latin superstitiō had the sense ‘superiority’, and hence developed the senses ‘prophecy’ and ‘sorcery’.

The Oxford Latin Dictionary, now several decades old, says “orig. sense perh. ‘state of religious exaltation.'” We’ll never know for sure, but I thought people might be interested in the current educated guesses.


  1. marie-lucie says

    It looks like both superstitio and religio are so old that nobody knows what they mean any more.

  2. J. W. Brewer says

    How does “perh.” compare with “it has also been suggested” as to the degree to which the lexicographer is distancing himself from actual endorsement of the proposal?

  3. marie-lucie says

    It is shorter.

  4. Treesong says

    So superstition and supersession differ only by one’s posture? No superincubation, though.

  5. How about superfecundation?

  6. ‘overstanding’ may be a related metaphor to ‘understanding‘ or ‘verstehen’.

  7. I was about to propose substition in opposition to superstition, but a search shows that Terry Pratchett has beaten me to it:
    “‘No, they’re a ‘substition’, said Susan. ‘I mean they’re real, but hardly anyone really believes in them. Mostly everyone believes in things that aren’t real.'”

  8. That’s one of the great things about Google: it shows more clearly than ever before that everything has been thought of already.

  9. (“everything has already been thought of” returns 3.59m ghits.)

  10. And yet not a single hit for “He sold me a multi-colored goat” (except this page, eventually).

  11. J. W. Brewer says

    “Overstanding” in lieu of “understanding” is a lexical peculiarity of Rastafarians, but is intended to give positive imagery to a positive concept — much the way “downpression” for “oppression” is intended to do the same in the opposite direction.

  12. It would be useful to have a detailed historical fix on who were Cicero’s religious zealots, the superstitiosi? If the 21st century can breed the Branch Davidians, early antiquity must have had their share of cultic or non-majority acolytes, including those who “excessive” rituals would have set them apart not only in the eyes of the Other but in their own eyes as well. Self-righteousness in the defense of entrenched belief systems not being a new phenomenon. By late antiquity, superstitious practices become nicely “redundant”, while those practitioners who were previously seen to stand above or apart are left holding the semantic bag. All this at the intersection of the Mediterranean basin where religion, politics and, no doubt, ethnicity made for supercharged tensions.

  13. marie-lucie says

    By “superstition” I understand not “religious” beliefs (such as provide a general explanation for the world both natural and supernatural and humans’ place in it, as well as rituals designed to influence and reconcile its various aspects) but low-level household magic involving a collection of unconnected mini-rituals such as touching wood, throwing spilled salt over one’s left shoulder, avoiding black cats, and such, which have apparently nothing to do with a more sophisticated understanding of the world and are therefore “superfluous”or redundant to religion. I think that that was the meaning implied by Cicero’s and others’ comments, rather than “religious exaltation”.

  14. Today’s low-level magic beliefs seem to cut quite close to the core beliefs of Rome, divining on entrails and on flight of birds, omens of all sorts… I second the wish to know what was looked down upon as excessive in those days – perhaps the most obsolete rites from the centuries prior which nobody could properly understand anymore, but which were still practiced by priests somewhere?

  15. If the 21st century can breed the Branch Davidians, early antiquity must have had their share of cultic or non-majority acolytes, including those who “excessive” rituals would have set them apart not only in the eyes of the Other but in their own eyes as well.

    Surely early Christians fall into that category (or maybe that should be “rise up to that category”).

    The Essenes are another.

  16. I propose that the distinction between religion and superstition is primarily that of the perspective of the speaker. First person belief system is religion. Third person (possibly second) is superstition.

    I think there is also a difference factor. The more different the faith practices are from those of the speaker the more ‘superstitious’ they become.

  17. Alon Lischinsky says

    @GeorgeW: that’s exactly what the early Christians said (religio veri dei cultus est, superstitio falsi), but during Republican times the notion seems to have had more of an explicitly political tone. Livy describes, for example, the cult of Bacchus being treated as superstitio despite its local roots, because it lacked official sanction by the Senate.

    @languagehat: that’s only half of the picture as far as Cicero is concerned. In De domo sua, he uses superstitiosus in a clearly positive sense, meaning simply ‘religious’: illius castissimi sacerdotis superstitiosa dedicatio (39.103). For earlier authors such as Plautus the term was basically a synonym for hariolus ‘soothsayer’. I suppose this might well have been the original sense (there are clear analogies between super-stitio and ἔκ-στασις), with the derogatory one being a later development.

  18. John Cowan says

    I’d say that superstition is religious belief or ritual that’s become disconnected from its original matrix. We no longer believe that black cats are witches’ familiars, but many people avoid them anyway, to the point where it is very difficult for animal shelters to get black cats adopted out, and they are put to sleep disproportionately often.

  19. there are clear analogies between super-stitio and ἔκ-στασις

    I don’t know why I didn’t respond to this in 2014, but that’s a very enlightening comparison and helps me get a sense of how it might have developed semantically.

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