English Word Series: Passion

The word ‘passion’ can be traced back to its 5000 year old Proto-Indo-European base ‘*pei’, which meant ‘to hurt’.  In approximately 1175 this word was adopted from Old French to Old English to mean the, ‘sufferings of Christ on the Cross’.

The word ‘passion’ is well established in Christian theology but its use, once adopted from Old French, only took fifty years to expand its range of meanings.  By 1225 ‘passion’ had not only extended to mean the sufferings of martyrs but was used as the word to describe suffering in general.  By the early 17th century ‘passion’ was used to describe a painful disorder or affliction of a specific part of the body, ‘cardiac passion, hysteric passion, and iliac passion’ for example.

By the late 14th century ‘passion’ extended its meaning to describe ‘strong emotion or desire’.  This is because, in its expansion of meaning, it replaced the Old English word ‘olung’ which literally meant, ‘suffering’ with the word ‘olian’ which meant ‘to endure’.  By Middle English this sense of the word saw ‘passion’ describe a strong barely controllable emotion, ‘she was shaking with passion, anger and resentment’ and by the early 16th century ‘passion’ was used as a fit or outburst of anger or rage, ‘Climbing into the pulpit, he rapidly fell into a passion, stamping and thundering’.   By the mid 16th century a literary composition which was written with emotional speech and showed strong emotion was known as a ‘passion’.

The word passion picked up sexual connotations in the late Middle English period, and was first attested as meaning ‘sexual love’ from 1588.  ‘Passion’ not only described the sexual feeling but the person who was the object of such feeling, ‘which set a man at liberty from his lusts and passions’ (mid 20th century).  By the mid 17th century ‘passion’ had expanded its meaning again by describing a strong enthusiasm for anything- be it an aim or object that was pursued with very strong enthusiasm, ‘his passion was for the law’ (late 19th century).

The original meaning of ‘passion’ was still being used in 1633 however, as seen in the naming of the ‘passionflower’.  The flower got its name from its corona resembling a crown of thorns, its ten petals and sepals as the apostles (which did not include Peter or Judas), and other various parts of the flower resembling nails and wounds.