“With Bread”: The Etymology & Theology of Companionship

I’m a bit of a nerd. For instance, when I was younger, I, like many youngsters, memorized the alphabet. But that wasn’t enough for my young mind. I memorized not only the individual letters of the alphabet, but their corresponding numbers. So, A’s corresponding number is 1, B’s is 2, C’s is 3, and so on. This might sound simple enough, but wait, there’s more. I took it upon myself to memorize the sums and products of adding and multiplying letters by their corresponding numbers. With very little hesitation I could come up with the letters, numbers, and mathematical results when asked. Surprisingly, not too many people were looking for this information.

Fast forward to present day and I am still rather nerdy. (Thankfully, my wife has a soft spot for nerds.) I love words and their origins. Etymology is a hobby of mine that is – in my mind – worth its weight in gold. Mining the ins and outs of a word opens up meaning and interpretation. Like a flower in bloom, examining word origins, contexts, and histories allows for vibrant colors and nuanced designs previously hidden from view to emerge.

A few years ago, I was purchasing some bread from a grocery store for a shared meal. It was thinly sliced and aromatic. Perfectly baked crust protected the soft innards waiting for us to pluck apart. It was the kind of bread you should probably buy two loaves: one for the car ride home and one for the meal. Yet, what struck me on this particular occasion was the name of the bread. It wasn’t entitled “Italian Bread” although it was. Rather than translating the Italian, they had aptly and simply left it as, Pane.

And this triggered my etymological impulses.

Pane is a word derived from Latin meaning “bread.” It has a long and variegated history as it has been paired with a multitude of other terms. Nearly all of them center on bread of some sort.

The interesting thing is that the prefix com- means “with” stemming from the original Latin cum. When cum is used, it indicates a conjoining of two things. Pairings, groups, usage of items are all placed in relationship with the term cum.

Together cum + pane give us companion. Thus, your companions are the ones whom you are together “with bread.” Literally. Again, the etymology of companion opens our eyes to its history in that its Latin ancestor used to mean “messmate.” For the Latin speaking world and its cognates, companion wasn’t a general term. Your companions were the ones you ate with, the ones your broke bread with, the ones you shared a common table.

Companion points beyond itself to indicate the kinds of relationships eating together produces. Strangers and acquaintances become companions through eating together. Families flourish as they sit face-to-face sharing what is provided. Meals have been – and still are – the primary means of breaking down relational walls between folks. They are often the glue within communities due to their inherent hospitable nature.

The question then becomes, “With whom do we regularly share meals?” For those of us who claim to be Jesus-followers, this is a question central to our faith and discipleship. All too often, however, it has been relegated to a peripheral position in the life of faith. For many it has fallen too far down the list of Jesus-priorities, so much so, that it has become invisible for many. In my opinion, if there is one central practice we must reinvigorate and reincorporate into the life of the Church it is eating together. And, it seems, etymologically speaking, if we are to do this as companions, we must be true to the word by breaking bread together.

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Want to read the rest of this post?

You can read it at Missio Alliance where it was originally posted. There I discuss the postures and practices of presence, vulnerability, mutuality, and creation care inherent to shared meals and companionship. You can find the rest of it here: “‘With Bread’: The Etymology & Theology of Companionship”.

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One thought on ““With Bread”: The Etymology & Theology of Companionship

  1. This is excellent. I especially appreciate how you emphasize the importance of attention both to those with whom we share meals and to the food itself. Too often the food is a mere afterthought.

    I talked with a woman from Liberia once who told me about meals in her country. There the fellowship was an extremely important part of the meal, but so was the celebration and thankfulness for the food itself. She said they gave thanks for every meal, recognizing it as a miracle. One of the things she observed about America is that food is so abundant that if we give thanks at all our heart is rarely in it. And of course few people stop and consider the ethics behind what it took to grow, prepare and provide that food.

    Very well said Scott.

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