Where does the word “auspice” come from and What does it mean?

Ancient peoples held the firm belief that future events and the purposes of their gods were revealed by certain signs.

These signs, however, could be understood only by the very devout, especially trained to observe and to interpret.

Different nations had different beliefs in the way these signs were delivered, but among the forerunners of the Roman people, and by the Romans also, the signs or omens were thought to come through the birds, which, flying in the heavens, could readily be guided by the gods on high.

Hence, among the ancient Latin peoples, certain men were appointed to watch the flights of birds, to determine what kind of birds they were, to note the quarter of the sky in which they appeared and the direction of their flight, and, in some instances, to listen to their songs and to observe the food which they ate.

Such a man was called an auspex, a word derived from the Latin avis, bird, and specio, to see. (In later times the auspex was replaced by the augur. See INAUGURATE.) The services of the auspex were called upon when anything of importance was under consideration.

It was his function to say whether the signs were or were not favorable. That function was termed an auspicium, a term that was later applied to the prophetic token itself, to the omen or sign. This latter meaning was retained in the English auspice, but with a favorable sense especially.

Thus when we use the phrase, “under the auspices of,” we mean that our undertaking is under the benevolent protection or patronage of the named person or body.

And when we say that such and such a moment, or occasion or event is auspicious, we express belief in its success, as if the gods were approving the undertaking.

About Karen Hill

Karen Hill is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist. Born in New York, her work has appeared in the Examiner, Yahoo News, Buzzfeed, among others.

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