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STUDENT QUESTION AUGURS WELL FOR EDUCATION

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The question should have been an easy one. The student wanted to know a word. He had the definition and was just missing the word.

The class had been reading Tobit, from the Apocrypha. The introduction is light enough to get even reluctant readers into a fun tale: ". . .the same night also I returned from the burial, and slept by the wall of my courtyard . . . my face was uncovered: And I knew not that there were sparrows in the wall, and mine eyes being open, the sparrows muted warm dung into mine eyes, and a whiteness came in mine eyes; and I went to the physicians, but they helped me not."After being blinded with bird dung, Tobit has a falling out with his wife and then sends his son, Tobias, on a journey that includes finding a cure for bird dung blindness. The cure is from the heart, liver and gall of a fish.

The student's question was about the magic in the story: "was Tobias reading signs in the fish entrails?"

"I don't think so. The story is more about some magic powers in the heart, liver, and gall." ". . . And he said unto him, Touching the heart and the liver, if a devil or an evil spirit trouble any. . .As for the gall, it is good to anoint a man that hath whiteness in his eyes, and he shall be healed."

This is important information for summer picnickers who are splattered by Utah seagulls. The cure for whitewash in the eye is fish gall - use only as directed.

As important as this is to remember, it was not what was troubling my student. "What I want to know it what to call people who divine signs from the entrails of a sacrifice? What is this called? I just want to know the word."

"I should know this," I admitted to my students. "I'm sure it was on some multiple choice test when I was an undergraduate at the University of Utah. They ask stuff like this at the U.

"Since I can't remember at the moment what the word is for divining signs from fish entrails, you students can look it up for class tomorrow."

"OH NO YOU DON'T. YOU MADE US DO IT LAST TIME. YOU SAID THAT YOU'D DO IT THE NEXT TIME." (Students sometime astound me with their marvelous memories.)

I asked colleagues first. "I should know that." "I'm sure it's in my mythology text." "There is a line in Shakespeare; you should be able to find it there." "Ask Burdette" . . . plenty of good advice, but no word.

So I went to the thesaurus. That's where people go who want to find synonyms and it's where I began to look under prophecy, divination, omens, signs, portents, bird dung, fish guts and desperation. Finding a word when we know the definition seems backwards and difficult. It's harder than finding a word without knowing how to spell it.

Well here it is: "Augur - A religious official among the Romans, whose duty it was to predict future events and advise upon the course of public business, in accordance with omens derived from the flight, singing, and feeding of birds, the appearance of the entrails of sacrificial victims, celestial phenomena, and other portents." What these guys do is called "augury."

Those who really want to know who has used the word check the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). That is where I found the Shakespeare lines. "Augurer" is put in the mouth of Julius Caesar himself: "Cowards die many times before their deaths,/ The valiant never taste of death but once,/ Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,/ It seems to me most strange that men should fear,/ Seeing that death, a necessary end,/ Will come when it will come./What say the augurers?"

The word is also in the mouth of Hamlet: "Not a whit, we defy augury."

I don't know the context of Thomas Jefferson's use of the word in his writings: "One vote, which augurs ill to the rights of the people." This example is with the other 74 examples in the Oxford English Dictionary. Each example is complete with date and reference so that those who wish can put the Jefferson quotation in context. My guess is that he was referring to the vote that established the Republican Party in Utah. (Just checking for alert readers. If people notice this it augurs well for the future of education in Utah. Alert newspaper readers make good students.)