Originally, the pontifex maximus was the head priest in Ancient Rome. Today, it's the title of the Roman Catholic pope. The word pontifex has a rather curious etymology: it comes from the Latin word pont-, a stem of pons, meaning "bridge", and fex, meaning "maker". This is because the original pontifices were supposed to oversee the rebuilding of the Pons Sublicius, an important bridge across the Tiber River (the oldest and most sacred of Rome), and their name was adopted to reflect that. Pons comes from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction pontehs, or "path", and fex traces to PIE dhe, with a definition of "set" or "put". Pontifex eventually led to other words such as pontiff and pontificate. All three of these words have recently been declining in usage, slowly decreasing in literary references after peaks in the eighteenth and nineteenth century.
Adam Aleksic is a 221-month-old, 2800-ounce high school senior with disturbing interests in etymology, vexillology, geography, board games, limericks, and law. Adam will be studying linguistics at Harvard University in the fall.
The Etymology Nerd