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What is the difference between sempiternam and aeternam

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What is the difference between sempiternam and aeternam

Postby Lord_WayneY » Wed Aug 13, 2014 4:43 am

These words I came across in hymns like "Requiem" and "Pie Jesu" and so on. Sometimes I saw "dona eis requiem, sempiternam" and sometimes "dona eis requiem aeternam". Are there any difference between the two words? So far as I have seen, it seems the same, both the meaning and the usage. Am I right?
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Re: What is the difference between sempiternam and aeternam

Postby Qimmik » Wed Aug 13, 2014 1:49 pm

Basically, I believe you are correct.

Lewis & Short's Latin dictionary draws this distinction, attributing it to a 19th century German treatise on Latin synonyms:

sempiternus denotes what is perpetual, what exists as long as time endures, and keeps even pace with it; aeternus, the eternal, that which is raised above all time, and can be measured only by aeons (αἰῶνες, indefinite periods . . .[T]he sublime thought, without beginning and end, is more vividly suggested by aeternus than by sempiternus, since the former has more direct reference to the long duration of the eternal, which has neither beginning nor end. Sempiternus is rather a mathematical, aeternus a metaphysical, designation of eternity

However, I doubt whether this is a distinction that was consistently drawn in classical or medieval authors. At a superficial glance, L&S's citations of sempiternus from Cicero (see link below) don't seem to confirm this distinction completely: cursus stellarum, ignis Vestae, nihil umquam nisi sempiternum et divinum animo volutare; and even Terence: deorum vita sempiterna.

It's possible that in classical Latin, aeternus acquired a more poetic, "sublime" flavor because sempiternus is a word that has a metrical shape (long short long, a "cretic") that can't fit in hexameter verse, and therefore it couldn't be used by poets such as Lucretius, Vergil, Ovid, etc. This may account, at least partly, for the distinction Lewis and Short purport to draw.

Perhaps the similarity of aevum to the Greek word αἰών, aeon (to which aevum is apparently etymologically related) may also have played a part, as L&S suggests. (Aeternus = aevi-ternus.)

The Oxford Latin Dictionary doesn't attempt to draw a distinction between these two words.

Sempiternus occurs as early as Plautus and Terence (around 200 BCE); the earliest attested use of aeternus (originally aeviternus) seems to be in Lucretius and Varro (early 1st century BCE).

Links to Lewis & Short:



Lewis & Short is a classical Latin dictionary, with a cut-off date somewhere in late antiquity, but I don't think medieval Latin usage should be different.
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