Word of the Month: Sempiternal

David Zapatka

While reading The Metaphysics of Ping Pong by Guido Mina Di Sospiro recently, I ran across this long sentence, “…I certainly didn’t suspect a number of things: that I’d be soundly beaten by my teenage son; that shortly thereafter I’d become obsessed with table tennis; that my obsession would fuel a grueling initiation that, in a sense, is still going on today; that the sport itself would reacquaint me with some eternal principles of the Perennial Philosophy and afford me new glimpses of sempiternal wisdom; that it would teach me so much about myself, our human condition, and life; and that, finally, in “humble” table tennis I’d be looking for the living presence that informs the phenomenal world.” (As a table tennis enthusiast for over 50 years, I adored Mr. Di Sospiro’s metaphysical bent on the sport.)

Sempiternal—sem·pi·ter·nal, adjective, of never-ending duration; eternal

Origin and Etymology—Middle English, from Late Latin sempiternalis, from Latin sempiternus, from semper ever, always, from sem- one, same (akin to Old Norse samr same) + per through

First Known Use—15th century

Sempiternal used in a sentence:

The most likely thing is that the vow will be sempiternal.

Wherefore he is neither now or then, but sempiternal and forever. The Yoga-Vasishtha Maharamayana of Valmiki, vol. 3 (of 4) part 2 (of 2) IValmiki

When something is sempiternal, it seems like it’s been around forever, like the rise and fall of the tide on the beach or your love of chocolate.

Sempiternal in the news:

But law, and especially the sempiternal distinction between right and wrong, is never predicated on contracts or consent.—Daniel J. Mahoney, National Review, 20 June 2019

Despite their similarities, sempiternal and eternal come from different roots. Sempiternal is derived from the Late Latin sempiternalis and ultimately from semper, Latin for “always.” (You may recognize semper as a key element in the motto of the U.S. Marine Corps: semper fidelis, meaning “always faithful.”) Eternal, on the other hand, is derived, by way of Middle French and Middle English, from the Late Latin aeternalis and ultimately from aevum, Latin for “age” or “eternity.” Sempiternal is much less common than eternal, but some writers have found it useful. 19th-century American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “The one thing which we seek with insatiable desire is to forget ourselves, … to lose our sempiternal memory, and to do something without knowing how or why…”

Sempiternal is useful for describing something endless, especially when you want to use an impressive word. Although it’s often used the same way you’d use the word eternal, in philosophy there is a distinction between those terms. Eternal implies something that is infinite outside the bounds of time, like God, while sempiternal is a more earthbound way to talk about forever.

What do you recognize as sempiternal in your life? Please submit your sempiternal experiences or any word you may like to share along with your insights and comments to [email protected].