Getting to the roots of sectarian and secular

I was reading a New York Times article this morning about Faisal Shahzad, the suspect in the botched Times Square bombing. At one point, I misread the word sectarian as secular:

At the same time, hard-line mosques were given money and land, elevating a narrow, often sectarian world view that cast a pall over young Pakistanis.

Stick secular in there, and the sentence makes no sense. My mistake.

But that had me wondering if the two words have a common root. They don't.

First, the definitions. Sectarian, according to the American Heritage Dictionary:

  • 1. Of, relating to, or characteristic of a sect.
  • 2. Adhering or confined to the dogmatic limits of a sect or denomination; partisan.
  • 3. Narrow-minded; parochial.


  • 1. A group of people forming a distinct unit within a larger group by virtue of certain refinements or distinctions of belief or practice.
  • 2. A religious body, especially one that has separated from a larger denomination.
  • 3. A faction united by common interests or beliefs.


  • 1. Worldly rather than spiritual.
  • 2. Not specifically relating to religion or to a religious body: secular music.
  • 3. Relating to or advocating secularism.
  • 4. Not bound by monastic restrictions, especially not belonging to a religious order. Used of the clergy.
  • 5. Occurring or observed once in an age or century.
  • 6. Lasting from century to century.

Despite the common thread of religion and spirituality in the definitions, the words have distinct origins.

The AHD etymology for sect is that it comes from the "Middle English secte, from the Old French, from the Latin secta, meaning course or school of thought, from the feminine past participle of sequī, meaning to follow."

Secular comes from the "Middle English, from the Old French seculer, from the Late Latin saeculāris, from the Latin, meaning of an age, from saeculum, meaning generation, age." Webster's New World adds that saeculāris meant worldly, profane, heathen in ecclesiastical (church) Late Latin.

The OED further explains that the first four definitions of secular above follow that etymology, while the fifth and sixth, those dealing with time, come directly from saeculāris and saeculum. The OED also says that in Christian Latin, saeculum came to mean "the world," especially as opposed to the church, which explains how the ecclesiastical Late Latin saeculāris took on a meaning of profane and heathen.