Meanings: “Mass”

August 6, 2012

Since the discovery of the Higgs Boson particle, the particle that (as I understand it) gives other particles mass, I’ve been wondering about the word “mass.”  Does the word “mass” as used by physicists have the same origin as the word used for the religious services of the Roman Catholic Church?

Apparently not, at least according to these two quite distinct etymologies from

mass (n.1) Look up mass at
“lump, quantity, size,” late 14c., from O.Fr. masse “lump, heap, pile; crowd, large amount; ingot, bar” (11c.), and directly from L. massa “kneaded dough, lump, that which adheres together like dough,” probably from Gk. maza “barley cake, lump, mass, ball,” related to massein “to knead,” from PIE root *mag- “to knead” (cf. Lith. minkyti “to knead,” see macerate). Sense extended in English 1580s to “a large quantity, amount, or number.” Strict sense in physics is from 1704.

As an adjective from 1733, first attested in mass meeting in American English. mass culture is from 1916 in sociology (earlier in biology); mass hysteria is from 1914; mass media is from 1923; mass movement is from 1897; mass production is from 1920; mass grave is from 1918; mass murder from 1880.

mass (n.2) Look up mass at
“Eucharistic service,” O.E. mæsse, from V.L. *messa “eucharistic service,” lit. “dismissal,” from L.L. missa “dismissal,” fem. pp. of mittere “to let go, send” (see mission); probably so called from the concluding words of the service, Ite, missa est, “Go, (the prayer) has been sent,” or “Go, it is the dismissal.”

I’m intrigued, though, that the non-religious sense of “mass” derives from the stuff we mix together to make bread.  And I’m intrigued, too, that we call a religious service a mass because we are dismissed into the world, presumably having taken to heart what we have said and done in the service.


About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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One Response to Meanings: “Mass”

  1. Terry Louie says:

    Hello, Doug –

    I regularly read your blog and appreciate your insights. The decline of good jobs has greatly affectly some of our nieces and nephews seeking to make their way into the world. Thank you for your blog on the subject of jobs.


    Terry Louie

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