There are at a few points in our Minnesota Masonic ritual where I cock and eyebrow and think, “That has to be a mistake.” There is so much archaic language and usage in Masonic ritual that one can easily forgive the 21st century brother from not understanding every word. Fortunately, the authors of our ritual often use two words together than seem to have almost the same meaning. This repetition gives emphasis and cadence to some of the most important parts of the ritual, especially the obligations of each degree. I say they have almost the same meaning. Words such as “violate” and “transgress” paired together draw attention to the likelihood that they were not intended simply as synonyms. In fact, presented separately, as I have just done, they would not necessarily be thought of as synonyms. The word “violate” is still in common usage. One violates the law for example. Lawyers, like Masons, have preserved many usages that might otherwise have fallen out of favor; for when not dealing with lawyers, we are inclined to just say “he broke the law.’
This is a fine example of how English retains a Latin-based word and a Anglo-Saxon-based word which are about synonymous but, of course, have different etymologies; that is, different histories of usage and meaning and different roots. In the case above “violate” is from a Latin root, while “break” is from an Anglo-Saxon (or Old English) root. Old English belongs to the family of Germanic languages, related to German, Dutch, Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian. Our Latinate words in modern English entered the vocabulary when the French invaded Britain and took over after the Norman Conquest in 1066. French is in the family of Romance languages, which means they came from Rome, or from Latin. French, Spanish, Italian are the principal languages that descended from provincial Latin and share certain characteristics. Because French was the court language among the Norman conquerors and English remained the language of the conquered people, what we call English today is full of French words. Because in the Middle Ages, Latin was the official language of the Church and of international diplomatic and scholarly discourse, we also have many words derived more directly from Latin.
Very well then, but in the above example of “violate and transgress” the pair is actually made of two Latinate words. There are subtle differences of meaning, however. “Violate” means “break” essentially, but it has been used quite widely in English as a euphemism for rape — e.g., “violating a woman’s chastity.” The word “transgress” on the other hand means something more like “to cross over” The prefix “trans-” means between, as in for example “transport.” The “gress” part of the word derives from the same root as “egress” and even “aggression” meaning in its Latin roots, to attack. “Aggression” comes from Latin aggredi and “transgress” comes from transgredi, meaning to step across. The shared root in Latin is gred, meaning step. We use the image “to step across the line” for someone who has broken a rule or gone too far past the limit of social mores.
So, “violate and transgress” refer to two different actions. The first to “breaking” one’s promise, and the second to “crossing over the line” which in Masonry alludes to the circle. The circle is drawn by the compasses, one of the most important symbolic tools of Speculative Masonry. A Freemason is to control himself, keep his actions (behavior) “within due bounds.” That is, the Mason stands at the center of the circle and draws a line of limitation around himself, which corresponds to the moral code of his culture. Beyond this line he will not suffer himself to go.
Hele and Conceal
A more problematic pair is formed by these two words, “hele” and “conceal.” The first has disappeared from English completely and so it is commonly misconstrued as a funny medieval spelling for “hail” as in greeting. Good guess, but not right. There are two clues to the meaning and pronunciation of this word. First is that if it were pronounced with the usual English rules it would rhyme with “heal” which also neatly rhymes with its mate “conceal.” Hele is related to “heal” in as much as it has been used to refer to good health. in this sense it is probably closely related to “hale” as in “hale and hardy.” From Chaucer (who wrote in Middle English) we have: “In joy and perfyt hele” meaning perfect health.
“Hele” has the following cousins and ancestors: Anglo-Saxon helan, from Danish helen, German hehlen, all of which might actually have entered the Germanic language group from Latin celere, which is the end part of the word “conceal.” The prefix “con” in Latin means something like “jointly with” — a conspiracy, for instance, from Latin spiro, breath, so “to breath together.” So, there is an element of togetherness in “conceal.” That is, “to hide something together.” The Germanic helen or hele, came to mean “to cover or roof over.” Now think about it. What are you shown to do when you are given the grip of a Mason? You are not supposed to hold it out for everyone to see; you are supposed to close your left hand over your brother’s hand so that the grip is concealed and covered. And that is what “hele” means in Masonic ritual: to cover.
When the words are said, they should rhyme: “to always hele and ever conceal” rhymes nicely and it is, of course, as you brother know, coupled with a third word: reveal in “and never reveal.” That “reveal is the opposite of conceal is pretty obvious. The three words rhyme together and I need not remind you that three is the number of completeness in Masonry. It is a number that signifies integrity of the spirit, soul, and ego. Wholeness relates us back to the root of “health” which means exactly that: wholeness. The roofing definition of “hele” probably was meant to signify that the house was “complete” when roofed, as well as contained and protected from above.
So, we promise, to keep the secret signs of recognition and all other “secret mysteries of Masonry” covered and concealed from all non-Masons for it is the mark of belonging to the Craft. If a stranger were to walk up and in shaking your hand give you a Masonic grip, the proper response would not be to return it, but to follow the dialogue in its presentation. He should say to you “I hele” and you then respond “I conceal” and put you left hand over your and his right. Then ask “what is that?” To which he will give an appropriate answer depending on which grip he used. Masons do not usually give the secret handshake when they just greet each other and shake hands. That American custom of handshaking may have derived from Freemasonry, but unless in a situation where you need to secretly identify yourself as a Mason to a stranger, the grip should not be employed.
And that is your weekly lesson in philology, the poetry of ritual, and Masonic etiquette.