No word for Rapture

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Today's Doonesbury:

Recently, the media have been bombarding us with stories about Harold Camping's calculations that the end of the world will start tomorrow: Ashley Parker, "Make My Bed? But You Say the World’s Ending", NYT 5/19/2011; Mark Washburn, "With Rapture at hand, why bother flossing?", The Charlotte Observer, 5/20/2011; Abby Sewell, "Entreprenuers offer post-'rapture' services", L.A. Times 5/19/2011; David Barnett, "Apocalypse now? Christian Rapture fiction and the end of the world", 5/20/2001; etc.

But this being Language Log rather than Eschatology Log, my interest this morning is in the word rapture and in various associated verbs, such as rapted and raptured. Somewhat to my surprise, it appears that the sense glossed by the OED as "A state, condition, or fit of intense delight or enthusiasm" is a couple of centuries older than the sense glossed as "the transport of believers to heaven at the Second Coming of Christ".

Here are the OED's first few citations for the "intense delight or enthusiasm" meaning:

1594 G. Chapman Σκíα Νυκτóς sig. Aij,   It is an exceeding rapture of delight in the deepe search of knowledge‥that maketh men manfully indure th'extremes incident to that Herculean labour.
M. Drayton Barrons Wars iii. lviii. 67   Those pleasing raptures from her graces rise, Strongly inuading his impressive breast.
Milton Apol. Smectymnuus in Wks. (1851) III. 287   This man‥sees truth as in a rapture, and cleaves to it.
J. Wesley & C. Wesley Coll. Psalms & Hymns (ed. 3) i. 55   If aught can there enhance their Bliss Or raise their Raptures higher.
O. Goldsmith Citizen of World I. 36   He is instantly in raptures at so great an improvement.

And for the "transport of believers" meaning:

1768 T. Broughton Prospect of Futurity iii. viii. 357   We have determined likewise, from the Circumstance of the Rapture of the Saints,‥that the Air or Atmosphere will be the Place of the Judgement.
J. N. Darby Exam. Statements Apocalypse 20   The immensely important fact of the rapture of the Church.‥ Nor can this rapture take place till after He has left the throne.
W. Kelly Rapture of Saints 3,   I am not aware that there was any definite teaching‥that there would be a secret rapture of the saints at a secret coming.
D. Morgan Rising in West iii. xiii. 227   He believed in the imminence of Christ's return and the ‘rapture’ of the church.

The Wikipedia article on the Rapture discusses the original sources:

The Koine Greek text uses the verb form ἁρπαγησόμεθα [harpagēsometha], which means "we shall be caught up", "taken away", with the connotation that this is a sudden event. The dictionary form of this Greek verb is harpazō (ἁρπάζω).

The Latin rapiemur is Saint Jerome's translation of the Greek word ἁρπαγησόμεθα. This is a faithful translation, using a form of the Latin verb rapiō, "to catch up" or "take away". […]

"Rapture" is an English noun derived from the Latin verb rapiō, with a literal meaning of "I catch up" "or "I snatch" (from the infinitive form of the verb rapere, "to catch up"; "rapture" is also cognate to the English words "rapids", "ravish", and "rape").

Bible versions – English Bible versions have translated Jerome's rapiemur ("we shall be caught up") in various ways:

* The Wycliffe Bible (1395), translated from the Latin Vulgate (405), uses "rushed".[9]
* The Tyndale New Testament (1525), and then the Bishop's Bible (1568), Geneva Bible (1587) and King James Version (1611) have "caught up"
* The New English Bible, translated from the Greek uses "suddenly caught up" with this footnote: "Or “snatched up.” The Greek verb ἁρπάζω implies that the action is quick or forceful, so the translation supplied the adverb “suddenly” to make this implicit notion clear."

English writers on this topic seem to have been handicapped by a peculiar "no word for X" problem: as far as I can tell, there is (or at least, there was) no suitable and common English word for the fact, process, or result of being suddenly caught up (into the clouds or elsewhere).

Greek ἁρπάζω doesn't seem to have been borrowed into English in a suitable form. All we have is harpy, which is not all helpful in this context; and even in Latin, there's only harpago "grappling hook" and harpax "rapacious".

The earliest English descendent of Saint Jerome's rapere is rape — but already in the 14th century it had a distinctly negative connotation, which the OED glosses as "The act of taking something by force; esp. the seizure of property by violent means; robbery, plundering"; and by the 15th century it also and mainly meant "the act or crime, committed by a man, of forcing a woman to have sexual intercourse with him against her will". So "the Rape of the Saints" was never a plausible candidate.

The noun snatch refers more to  snatching than to being snatched, and so "the snatch of the saints" would not have been quite right, even before it acquired a giggle-worthy double meaning. Grab as a noun has a similarly active meaning, and its own set of negative connotations.

Of course, even the bible-translation verbal form "caught up" has some problems of its own — catch comes from late Latin captiare, via a French version which in the modern language is chasser, cognate with Italian cacciare, with the original meaning "hunt, chase, capture", and thus with some connotations that Saint Paul and Saint Jerome probably didn't intend.  The nominal form "catching up"  is a bit awkward ("the catching up of the saints"), and also brings out another set of catch meanings — "overtake", "interrupt", etc.

So at some point in the mid to late 18th century, people apparently drafted rapture into service. (The OED identifies the originator as Thomas Broughton, A prospect of futurity: in four dissertations on the nature and circumstances of the life to come : with a preliminary discourse on the natural and moral evidences of a future state; and an appendix on the general conflagration or burning of the world. Google books yields no earlier source for the phrase "rapture of the saints" in this meaning.)

The noun rapture itself was etymologically problematic: according to the OED,  post-classical Latin raptura was variously used to mean poaching, rape, and abduction. And similar meanings carried on to some extent in English:

1595 F. Sabie Fissher-mans Tale sig. Cv,   Priams famous towne, Nere bought so deare the rapture of faire Hellen.
1600 T. Dekker Old Fortunatus sig. H4v,   That feare, Which her late violent rapture cast vpon her.
1612 Life & Death Lewis Gaufredy sig. C1,   Great bitternes and affliction, as hers was after the rapture of her childe.
?1615 G. Chapman tr. Homer Odysses (new ed.) xx. 485   My women servants dragg'd about my house To lust and rapture
1632 G. Sandys tr. Ovid Metamorphosis (new ed.) v. 171   Lo, I the man, that will vpon thy life Reuenge, said he, the rapture of my wife.

But by 1768 (the date of the OED's first citation for escatological rapture) it seems that the "ecstatic delight" meaning had largely won out. Samuel Johnson's 1766 Dictionary glosses rapture as "ecstasy; transport; violence of any pleasing passion":

This is not at all what Saint Paul meant by ἁρπαγησόμεθα — but it's not surprising that 18th-century premillennialists preferred it to "rape".

I note also that Johnson's warning about raptured ("A bad word") has not prevented a recent rise in usage, mainly associated with other end-times speculation, thus:

Those who have been born again will definitely be raptured after the Tribulation.  … All the overweight people will be raptured and including the underweight people will be raptured as well.

We do not wish to say too much, but these few words we can safely affirm; namely, should the Lord Jesus come in our time, would we not want to be living so as to be raptured alive?

After she is raptured, Rayford wishes he had listened to her message about God.

The Bible teaches that all people, whether wicked or righteous, will be raptured. There are two phases of the rapture: The wicked will be raptured first followed by the rapture of the righteous. The Bible says God is going to clear the earth by rapturing everyone to his throne room.

Update — See also Be_Slayed's lovely "The Rapture, now with more Harpies" at Stæfcræft & Vyākaraṇa, 5/18/2011, which I unaccountably did not see earlier. That post also reproduces a relevant recent xkcd, which I did see but failed to include:

(As always, click to embiggen.)


  1. JS Bangs said,

    May 20, 2011 @ 8:56 am

    Rapturism annoys me to no end.

    But, lest this become Religious Peeving Log, I'll note that the "taken up into heaven" meaning of "rapture" appears roughly at the same time as the religious concept of the Rapture itself. Previous to the late 18th century there was no notion of the Rapture, as we currently understand the term, found anywhere in Christendom, and it appears that the very first writers on the subject were the ones who appropriated the term "rapture" to describe their innovative doctrine. For this reason, I don't find it at all surprising that the "religious ecstasy" sense of "rapture" is older.

    [(myl) Actually, the "intense delight" meaning, in the middle of the 18th century, seems mainly to have been secular and even sometimes sexual. See for example the use in The Tatler for April 22, 1709, which begins "I am just come from visiting Sappho, a fine Lady, who writes Verses, sings, dances and can say or do whatever she pleases, without the Imputation of any Thing that can injure her Character; for she is so well known to have no Passion but Self-love; or Folly, but Affectation; …", and continues to quote Ms. Sappho describing Eve "dissolving in the Hurry of a Rapture", referring to Dryden's description of a decidedly secular process:

    When your kind Eyes look'd languishing on mine,
    And wreathing Arms did soft Embraces join ;
    A doubtful Trembling seiz'd me first all o'er,
    Then Wishes and a Warmth unknown before ;
    What follow'd was all Extasy and Trance,
    Immortal Pleasures round my swimming Eyes did dance ;
    And speechless Joys, in whose sweet Tumults tost,
    I thought my Breath and my New Being lost.

    Or this exchange between Heartfree and Constant in John Vanbrugh's 1760 play The Provoked Wife:

    Heartf. Why, what the devil's all this rapture for ?
    Const. Rapture ! There's ground for rapture, man : there's hopes, my Heartfree, hopes, my friend.
    Heartf. Hopes ! of what ?
    Const. Why, hopes my Lady and I together (for 'its more than one body's work) should make Sir John a cuckold.


  2. jfruh said,

    May 20, 2011 @ 9:40 am

    What's the book/chapter/verse where ἁρπαγησόμεθα is found?

    [(myl) The linked Wikipedia article cites 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17. I didn't check the Greek, but you could. This source gives the verse as
    επειτα ημεις οι ζωντες οι περιλειπομενοι αμα συν αυτοις αρπαγησομεθα εν νεφελαις εις απαντησιν του κυριου εις αερα και ουτως παντοτε συν κυριω εσομεθα

  3. Mr Fnortner said,

    May 20, 2011 @ 9:42 am

    An assumption seems to come quite close to the meaning that rapture intends; however, various Christian faiths established the use of assumption for Mary, so they would probably be squeamish about its use for general abduction into Heaven.

    [(myl) Isn't assumption more of a self-powered ascent, so to speak?]

  4. Ray Girvan said,

    May 20, 2011 @ 9:49 am

    I first encountered the term in the ecstasy sense in the early 1960s via the term "raptures of the deep" (i.e. nitrogen narcosis in divers) used in a Stingray episode.

  5. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 20, 2011 @ 10:05 am

    @myl: Assumption seems to happen in the passive voice:

    "From these proofs and authorities and from many others, it is manifest that the most blessed Mother of God has been assumed above the choirs of angels."

    Albert the Great, quoted by Pope Pius XII in the Apostolic Constitution defining the Dogma of the Assumption

    "…we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory."

    Pius XII, ibid.

    So I don't think Catholics see her as the agent of the Assumption. I haven't looked at Orthodox sources on the Dormition.

  6. David L said,

    May 20, 2011 @ 10:32 am

    I notice that Dr. Johnson, in a bit of blunt prescriptivism, says that RAPTURED is 'a bad word.' Presumably not in the sense that uttering it would cause women to swoon and children to snicker, but in the way some people object to ongoing, impact as a verb, etc etc.

    But I wonder why he thought it was bad? Because he doesn't admit rapture as a verb?

  7. David L said,

    May 20, 2011 @ 10:33 am

    Note to self: read whole blog post first.

  8. Cavity Lee said,

    May 20, 2011 @ 10:35 am

    no suitable and common English word for the fact, process, or result of being suddenly caught up

    Seized? That does have some flavor, for me, of being *held fast* after one is caught up; you can be seized by a kidnapper or a compulsion, but maybe not by a crowd or a tidal wave.

    [(myl) The nominal form would be seizure, which has meant unfortunate things like "confiscation or forcible taking possession (of land or goods)" since the 15th century, and "A sudden attack of illness, esp. a fit of apoplexy or epilepsy" since the 18th century.

    For what the late-18th-century premillennialists had in mind, none of the available words were right. But rapture had a nice blissful vibe to it, compared to rape or snatching or seizure.]

  9. Meanings: “Rapture” | The Observatory said,

    May 20, 2011 @ 11:07 am

    […] Log helps us understand how we came to use the word "rapture" in English to mean the transport of believers to […]

  10. Bill Walderman said,

    May 20, 2011 @ 12:25 pm

    "For what the late-18th-century premillennialists had in mind, none of the available words were right. But rapture had a nice blissful vibe to it, compared to rape or snatching or seizure."

    But the Greek verb ἁρπάζω has connotations of suddenness, violence and even wrongfulness: Some of the meanings given in Liddell Scott Jones are "snatch away," carry off," "seize hastily," "snatch up," "plunder," "seize," "overpower," "overmaster, and, in an intransitive use cited from Aristophanes, "to be a robber." And for the noun There are some milder metaphorical uses of ἁρπάζω from the Koine era: "to captivate" in the Septuagint and Plutarch. But the passage from 1 Thessalonians uses the word in a clearly physical sense: "Then we the living, those who are left, will be snatched up in the clouds together with them to a meeting with the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord."

    [(myl) All that is true, and it opens some interesting questions about what Saint Paul had in mind. (Maybe a clue is provided by this, from the OED's etymology for harpy: "Greek ἅρπῡιαι ‘snatchers’ (compare ἁρπάζειν to snatch away, seize), in Homer used to personify whirlwinds".)

    But the 18th-century eschatological rapture, though certainly sudden and forceful, seems to carry associations of blissful transport rather than hostile conquest.]

  11. immaculatus said,

    May 20, 2011 @ 12:54 pm

    OT, from bbc:

    "Amondawa tribe lacks abstract idea of time, study says"

    I suppose everything is possible but it really sounds very strange.

  12. Leonardo Boiko said,

    May 20, 2011 @ 1:28 pm

    The Portuguese/Spanish cognate “rapto” today still mean “kidnapping, abduction”. Christian rapture is translated as “arrebatamento” (nominalized from verb “arrebatar”), from the same root but via a different path (ad+raptare, apparently).

    Arrebatamento can mean either 1. the act of taking something by force or 2. the state of being enthusiastic, but (to my Brazilian Portuguese ears at least) the positive sense 2 seems to be winning. It’s curious because it sounds like a good thing, but on a closer look you realize it’s meaning 1 that makes sense in the religious context.

  13. Nyq Only said,

    May 20, 2011 @ 3:21 pm

    What was wrong with 'transported'? True it would have a negative conotation in the 19th century with regard to the sending of convicts to Australia but it does convey both movement, relocation and possibly a blissful mental state.

  14. Benjamin Slade said,

    May 20, 2011 @ 3:31 pm

    Greek ἁρπάζω and Latin rapere appear to derive from the same PIE root (*h1rep), also underlying English reap, see: The Rapture, now with more Harpies.

  15. Rubrick said,

    May 20, 2011 @ 3:54 pm

    Another alternative in British English would be nick. Thus, if the Rapture indeed starts tomorrow, the Guardian could avail itself of the headline "Saint Nick Begins"*.

    *Also, coincidentally, the name of the movie reboot of the Santa Claus franchise.

  16. J. K. Gayle said,

    May 20, 2011 @ 4:05 pm

    For I Thessalonians 4:17, for Paul's ἁρπαγησόμεθα, one of the best translations is Clarence Jordan's "will be whooshed up" (i.e., in Jordan's The Cotton Patch Gospel);

    For 2 Corinthians 12:2 and 12:4, for Paul's ἁρπαγέντα, the best is Ann Nyland's "was seized and carried off"; and GOD'S WORD® Translation's and ISV's "was snatched away."

    (For the Philippians 2:6-7, for Paul's ἁρπαγμὸν, the best translations are by Willis Barnstone, Nyland, the KJV, and Richmond Lattimore: "robbery" and "to seize on.")

    When Paul writes about rapture, it really is violent. And the best English translators show this connotation.

  17. Pflaumbaum said,

    May 20, 2011 @ 4:40 pm

    Hope this is enough on topic – ἁρπάζω and rapio are surely from the same root, but are there any theories as to the source of the /a/ and aspiration?

  18. Pflaumbaum said,

    May 20, 2011 @ 4:45 pm

    @ Benjamin Slade –

    Didn't see your post. Would that imply /*h1r̩p-/ > /*h1arp/, and if so is that rough breathing an actual reflex of a laryngeal?

    Also, how does the /p/ in reap work? Should be /f/, no?

  19. Benjamin Slade said,

    May 20, 2011 @ 5:08 pm


    I wouldn't think the rough breathing would be a reflex of a laryngeal (though it looks appealling).

    I too casually mention reap I think: reap seems to be connected (though exactly how is not fully clear) with rive and reave, which can be more straightforwardly derived from *h1rep.

  20. Keith M Ellis said,

    May 20, 2011 @ 6:00 pm

    OT, from BBC:

    "Amondawa tribe lacks abstract idea of time, study says"
    I suppose everything is possible but it really sounds very strange.

    For what it's worth, the researchers as interviewed by the BBC seem to go out of his/their way to make clear there's no sort of Whorfian argument involved:

    "None of this implies that such mappings are beyond the cognitive capacities of the people," Professor Sinha explained. "It's just that it doesn't happen in everyday life."

    The skeptical theoretical linguist interviewed seems to me to make a strong case. I suppose that if this is interesting enough, Mark or someone else will write a post on it.

  21. Rachel Klippenstein said,

    May 20, 2011 @ 8:28 pm

    I was curious if there was an Old English rendering of the 1 Thessalonians passage at hand. It turns out that there's a translation/paraphrase in one of Ælfric's homilies; the relevant part says:

    'and ða deadan ærest arisað; syððan we ðe lybbað, and on lichaman beoð gemette, beoð gelæhte forð mid þam oðrum on wolcnum togeanes Criste;'

    The words corresponding to caught up in later English translations are gelæhte forð; gelæhte is the past particple of (ge)læccan, which has a range of meanings including 'seize, grasp, catch, take, receive'. forð is closer to 'away' than 'up'. I'd render the whole bit I quoted above as:

    'and then the dead will arise first; afterwards we who live, and are found in the body, will be caught away with the others on clouds towards Christ;'

  22. Pflaumbaum said,

    May 21, 2011 @ 6:57 am

    The Koine passage calls to mind Aphrodite's rescue of Paris in book 3 of the Iliad:

    τὸν δ᾽ ἐξήρπαξ᾽ Ἀφροδίτη
    ῥεῖα μάλ᾽ ὥς τε θεός, ἐκάλυψε δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ἠέρι πολλῇ,
    κὰδ δ᾽ εἷσ᾽ ἐν θαλάμῳ εὐώδεϊ κηώεντι.

    "But Aphrodite raptured him with divine effortlessness, concealed him in a thick mist, and laid him down on his perfume-scented bed."

    @ Benjamin –

    It does seem too good to be true – though Winfred Lehmann does seem to analyse some rough breathings as reflexes of original /*Hy-/, /*Hw-/:

  23. adriano said,

    May 21, 2011 @ 7:05 am

    For what it's worth, in Italian "rapimento" can either stand for "kidnapping" or, in a figurative sense, for "ecstatic rapture" (rapimento estatico).
    Consider Bernini's "Estasi di Santa Teresa" and you'll get what I mean.
    In that sculpture Saint Theresa is "taken away" by what ostensibly is a mystical vision, but you might call it "sexual excitement" as well.

  24. [links] Link salad wakes up to the bodies flying through the sky | said,

    May 21, 2011 @ 8:02 am

    […] No word for Rapture — Language Log on the current idiocy. […]

  25. Xmun said,

    May 21, 2011 @ 4:09 pm

    To those who have not already read it, may I recommend Thomas Carew's poem "The Rapture". It may be found online at

  26. Bill Walderman said,

    May 22, 2011 @ 9:46 am

    @ Xmun: Thanks for recommending the poem. I think it's safe to say that Carew's use of the word "rapture" falls more under the rubric of "intense delight and enthusiasm" than "transport of the believers." But maybe it refers to a different kind of transport of believers in a different sort of divinity. (Interesting that the word "transport" has (or had) some of the same polysemy as rapture, like "carried off" or "carried away.")

    After reading the poem, I was amused by the decorous comment in the Wikipedia article on Carew, copied from the 1911 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica:

    "The longest of Carew's poems, 'A Rapture,' would be more widely appreciated if the rich flow of its imagination were restrained by greater reticence of taste."

  27. JR said,

    May 23, 2011 @ 9:23 am

    All this, and no Velocirapture?

  28. chris said,

    May 23, 2011 @ 9:58 am

    In that sculpture Saint Theresa is "taken away" by what ostensibly is a mystical vision, but you might call it "sexual excitement" as well.

    In that case, doesn't the similarity in words derive from the similarity in things? Parallels between sexual and religious excitement have been observed and commented on since ancient times.

    …Ultimately, I think the problem is that it's hard to stay faithful (no pun intended) to the meaning of what is supposed to be going to happen AND make it sound like a good thing.

  29. blahedo said,

    May 23, 2011 @ 3:21 pm

    So we're saying that at some point, true believers will get carried away, while the rest of the world remains grounded and proceeds with life as usual?

    …that sounds about right.

  30. Maureen said,

    May 24, 2011 @ 10:54 am

    Re: violent connotation, Jesus did warn His disciples that He would come "like a thief in the night".

    But the overall image is that the King is coming with his troops to rescue the city from occupation, the loyal partisans slip out to meet him (with help from those carrying them up into the clouds to the meeting place), and then he, his troops, and his partisans all arrive down at the gate with trumpets and noise, bringing rescue and judgment.

    You can also get into the argument about "as in the days of Noah" — does "some are taken and some are left" mean some are taken and survive the Flood, or some are left alive after the Flood to continue life?

  31. Caelobelum said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 2:10 pm

    I went over all the interesting Christianity-related comments on the semantics of the word "rapture," and came upon the word "to transport" which has gained a bit from Star Trek in the past half a century. Perhaps people mean "to transport" in the Sci-Fi sense, to dematerialize, beam (in some mystical or technological way) and re-materialize somewhere else. "Teleportation" is the non-Star Trek word for this concept.

    To beam is a curious verb, and I suppose it actually originated with Star Trek. A matter-transference beam is probably the term they used in the show, to dodge any philosophical questions that might arise from various forms of actual teleportation that might be possible.

  32. Wattsy said,

    May 27, 2011 @ 3:52 am

    Does "Ascension" have any legitimacy as an alternative to "Rapture". Admittedly my religious knowledge is lacking, has it been co-opted by Jesus' ascension to heaven? What about Ascendance? (If that's even a word?)

  33. James Kabala said,

    June 7, 2011 @ 12:15 pm

    In Catholic usage, ascension (unlike assumption as mistakenly claimed above) does imply self-powered.

  34. The Rapture, now with more Harpies | The Rapture, now with more Harpies - The Rapture, now with more Harpies - The Rapture, now with more Harpies = The Rapture, now with more Harpies said,

    August 7, 2011 @ 7:47 pm

    […] (20 May 2011): Now see Mark Liberman's "No Word for Rapture" on Language Log for further etymological discussion of […]

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