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28 March 2011

Monday's Word: Lustrum

27th March was the day when the 2011 UK Cencus had to be completed.  Having dutifully completed ours, (all 32 pages of it) I was interested to read the following article by Michael Quinion*

'In English, a lustrum is a rather rare literary word that means a period of five years, a quinquennium....

...There's a link between a five-year period and a census because in classical Rome the population was counted not every 10 years as is conventional in modern nations, but every five years. The census
was carried out by two magistrates called censors, as part of a valuation of the property of Romans for tax purposes - taxes which the censors were responsible for collecting. When the enumeration was over, one of the censors held a ceremony called a lustratio or lustrum in the Campus Martius at which a pig, a sheep and an ox were sacrificed in the presence of the people. "Lustrum" came to mean by extension both the ceremony and the period of time between two censuses.

Dictionaries don't agree about the source of "lustrum". Some argue it comes from "luere", to wash, because the ceremony originally involved ritual cleansing; others say it's from "lustrare", to purify or brighten, which would make "lustrum" a close relative of "lustre" and some other English words. Others warily include
variations on "ultimate origin unknown".

"Censor", by the way, has its modern English meaning because the magistrates who conducted the census and collected taxes were also responsible for maintaining public morals. Busy men.'

Thet certainly were.  In fact, I'm sure there's a story there, somewhere...


*World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion 2011. All rights reserved The  original post can be found at: http://www.worldwidewords.org/index.htm