In an excerpt from a forthcoming popular science book I found this claim:

As Villarreal points out, the word literate originally meant “one who can read holy scripts.”

Really? I went and looked in the OED, and that was no real help, as it just said that it's from "classical Latin litterātus". The American Heritage Dictionary entry online has a usage note, which tells me something interesting in a usage note:

For most of its long history in English, literate has meant only "familiar with literature," or more generally, "well-educated, learned." Only since the late 19th century has it also come to refer to the basic ability to read and write. [...]

but not only does this not mention "holy scripts", it pretty much seems to be a contradiction.

Is the quoted claim completely off-base, or is there an argument to be made for it?

(Note that the article excerpt doesn't explain who "Villareal" is, but I think it's this guy.)

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    Can you email Professor Villareal and respectfully ask him for his source? His e-mail is in your link about him (if that is in fact the correct person). I don't find thd definition he used anywhere. I guess you could infer that the literate in the Middle Ages were either clergy or monastic or were taught in schools run by monasteries or the churches, and thus they could read the scriptures, whereas the general populace were unschooled and illiterate.
    – JLG
    Apr 1, 2012 at 4:00
  • I don't think he has the full picture. "able to read holy scripts" could only be an intermediate and derived connotation of "littera" after the Christianization of Rome. Where "littera" must had still, prior to the Christian era, meant "letters" and "decrees". More likely being able to read decrees and epistles, could have colloquially associated "littera" to the Christian epistles, written decrees and Church law. To say that "littera" originally meant "holy scripts" could be a hyperbolic opinion. "Originally" as to which era? Apr 1, 2012 at 4:25

1 Answer 1


Literate and the Latin litteratus from which it derives literally means "of letters," by metonymy meaning one who is educated or well-read. At least at face value and out of context, the quotation here seems incorrect.

That said, the traditional liberal arts education includes a heavy emphasis on the Western classics— works which were transmitted through the Middle Ages by the Church (some directly from the Romans and some via contact with the Muslim world). It was a period when clerics were the most educated class of people in Europe, and well into the 19th century, proficiency in the church languages of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew was a mark of a proper education. Still, the Bible, however variously compiled, is arguably the only "holy script" in any branch of Christendom, but a historically literate Westerner would know not only the Bible, but also Platonic dialogues, Sophoclean tragedies, Ciceronian commentaries, and many other works which have never been considered sacred in any tradition.

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