Conclave does not mean “with a key”

A number of Catholic blogs and news website are claiming that the Latin term “conclave” means “with a key.” It does not. The Latin word “clave” means “key”. But the Latin prefix “con” does not mean “with”.

In general, the Latin prefix “con” intensifies the meaning of the main word. Some examples follow from Sacred Scripture.

[Song of Songs]
{2:1} Ego flos campi, et lilium convallium.
{2:1} Bride: I am a flower of the open field and a lily of the steep valleys.

The Latin word “vallium” means valleys; the prefix ‘con’ intensifies the root of the word, hence the translation: “steep valleys”.

{2:3} Clypeus fortium eius ignitus, viri exercitus in coccineis: igneæ habenæ currus in die præparationis eius, et agitatores consopiti sunt.
{2:3} The shield of his strong ones is fire, the men of war are in scarlet. The reins of the chariot are fiery in the day of his preparation, and the drivers have been drugged.

The verb ‘consopio’ refers, not merely falling asleep at the end of every day, but to something that causes sleep unnaturally, such as a soporific or a blow to the head. The prefix ‘con’ intensifies the meaning of this verb, so that it is clear that the drivers are not merely sleepy, but they have been drugged.

{2:13} Sileat omnis caro a facie Domini: quia consurrexit de habitaculo sancto suo.
{2:13} Let all flesh be silent before the face of the Lord: for he has arisen from his holy dwelling place.

The prefix ‘con’ intensifies the verb in Latin; the prefix ‘a’ intensifies the verb in English; hence ‘consurrexit’ becomes ‘has arisen,’ rather than ‘has risen.’

{3:8} Si affliget homo Deum, quia vos configitis me? Et dixistis: In quo configimus te? In decimis, et in primitiis.
{3:8} If a man will afflict God, then you greatly afflict me. And you have said, “In what way, do we afflict you?” In tithes and in first-fruits.

The word ‘configimus’ can mean ‘to affix with nails’ or ‘to pierce through’ with something. The meaning is close to that of crucifixion. Also, ‘configitis’ is made more intense in meaning, by the prefix ‘con,’ than ‘affliget.’

[1 John]
{1:1} Quod fuit ab initio, quod audivimus, quod vidimus oculis nostris, quod perspeximus, et manus nostræ contrectaverunt de Verbo Vitæ:
{1:1} He who was from the beginning, whom we have heard, whom we have seen with our eyes, upon whom we have gazed, and whom our hands have certainly touched: He is the Word of Life.

The prefix ‘con’ in the verb ‘contrectaverunt’ intensifies the meaning of the verb, so that it is not merely ‘touched,’ but emphasizing the certainty that they have touched the Word of God Incarnate.

{9:2} Et ecce offerebant ei paralyticum iacentem in lecto. Et videns Iesus fidem illorum, dixit paralytico: Confide fili, remittuntur tibi peccata tua.
{9:2} And behold, they brought to him a paralytic, lying on a bed. And Jesus, seeing their faith, said to the paralytic, “Be strengthened in faith, son; your sins are forgiven you.”

The word ‘confide’ is a combination of the prefix ‘con’ which generally intensifies the meaning of a noun or verb, and ‘fide’ which refers to faith or trust. A translation such as ‘take heart’ or ‘have confidence’ would not be as accurate a translation of the Latin, because the context is that Jesus was responding to their faith. So He said to them, commenting on their faith, ‘be strengthened in faith,’ not merely ‘take heart’ or ‘have confidence.’

[1 Corinthians]
{1:20} Ubi sapiens? Ubi scriba? Ubi conquisitor huius sæculi? Nonne stultam fecit Deus sapientiam huius mundi?
{1:20} Where are the wise? Where are the scribes? Where are the truth-seekers of this age? Has not God made the wisdom of this world into foolishness?

The word ‘conquisitor’ refers to those who search for something, and the prefix ‘con’ intensifies the meaning of the word, making it an intense search, and the context of the verse makes it a search for wisdom and truth. Hence the translation: truth-seekers.

[Isaiah 15]

{15:1} Onus Moab. Quia nocte vastata est Ar Moab, conticuit: quia nocte vastatus est murus Moab, conticuit.
{15:1} The burden of Moab. Because Ar of Moab has been destroyed by night, it is utterly silent. Because the wall of Moab has been destroyed by night, it is utterly silent.

The ‘con’ prefix intensifies the meaning of the verb, hence the translation “utterly silent.”

I am given to understand that in Spanish as well as Italian, the word “con” does mean “with”. But that is not the case in Latin. As a prefix “con” does not mean “with”, and neither does the word “con” stand on its own in Latin to mean “with”.

So why does “conclave” have the “con” prefix? It intensifies the meaning of the root word, “clave” (key), thus implying that the Cardinals in the Conclave are locked away, very thoroughly or very strictly. The term suggests a less than entirely voluntary turning of the key to lock them up, whether they like it or not.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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