This week I am delving into the murky word depths of occult and oculist to see if they’re linked.
I knew that occult described supernatural things and practices, but I didn’t realise it could be used as a verb to describe the concealment of something e.g. the private couple occulted their home from view with a large hedge. This would tie in with occult practice as being a way to “draw back the veil” between worlds – if you believe such things can be done (I don’t).
It can also be used in a medical sense to refer to barely detectable symptoms and diseases that are hard to prove by purely medical means. Although I would guess that any doctor using the term to a patient will have to stress the cure won’t be produced from within a black top hat.
Occult comes from the Latin verb occulere – a joining of ob (in the way – think of obstruct and obfuscate) and celare (to conceal – perhaps in a cellar?). It dates from the 1500s.
Oculist was a term I only encountered recently and it is an old-fashioned word for ophthalmologist, optometrist or as they are more commonly known in Ireland, optician. As a spectacle wearer myself I am a fan of their work but I’ve never seen a hint of the occult in their careful examinations of my eyesight.
The missing letter c is at the heart of this confusion of words. Oculist comes, via French, from the Latin for eye – oculus. Oculist entered English at around the same time as occult (or indeed occultist) so the close spelling must have been confusing readers for 500 years now, especially if their eyesight was poor.
Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,