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How the Rosary Got Its Name

Where exactly did the rosary come from? Even today, it’s one of the most popular and recognizable Catholic prayers. But you probably don’t know the name “rosary” itself has a symbolic meaning. 

The first recorded use of the English word rosary in the strict sense was over 400 years ago in 1597, but the practice of using beads for the repetition of prayer to aid contemplation goes back to the earliest days of the Church. At that time, monks and friars would recite all 150 Psalms as part of their daily prayers and devotions. They would count out 150 pebbles from a pouch to keep track. Over time the laity began using string with knots in it, which eventually evolved into using pieces of wood. The laity would pray Our Fathers, or “Paternosters,” instead of the Psalms because few could memorize them all with a lack of printed material. 

As the tradition of the rosary developed, so did the reference of using “beads” to pray. The English word “bead” comes from the Middle English word “bede,” which literally means “a prayer.”

The word rosary itself comes from the Latin “rosarium,” meaning a garden or garland of roses. During the Middle Ages, agriculture metaphor was common. Writing often drew comparisons to plowing a field, and collecting prayers was seen as growing a garden or arranging a bouquet. In the most literal sense, the rosary is a “garden” or “bouquet” of prayers.

Symbolic associations with roses and the Blessed Virgin abound. In the Middle Ages, the Latin “rosarium” was used to refer to a “rose garland for crowning the Virgin.” Over time, the association between the rosary and rose imagery strengthened – it's not hard to imagine that a string of beads can look like a bouquet of flowers. The Marian/flower symbolism worked its way into the etymological roots of many English words today: the marigold and even the passionflower refer to Mary and the Passion of Christ.

“The rose of charity, the lily of chastity, the violet of humility and the golden gillyflower of heaven.” – Saint Bernard on the Virgin Mary, 12th century.

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