The written word pontificate exists in two different pronunciations and word classes. They share a derivation from pontifex, the title of a high priest in ancient Rome, which was adopted, particularly in the form pontifex maximus 'the greatest high priest', by the Pope, or Bishop of Rome. The current English equivalent is pontiff, "Originally: a bishop of the early Western Church. Now: spec[ifically] the bishop of Rome, the Pope" (OED).
- The family which supplies the main characters of Samuel Butler's satirical novel The Way of All Flesh (written between 1873 and 1884 but not published until 1903) is called Pontifex; the hero is Ernest Pontifex.
- As a noun, pontificate is stressed on the second syllable, 'pon-TIFF-ick-et', IPA: /pɒn 'tɪf ɪ kɪ (orə)t/. It means 'the period of a Pope's incumbency or reign', and sometimes 'the position or office of a Pope'. It can also be applied to the priests of ancient Rome in similar senses.
- As a verb, 'to pontificate' has a secondary stress, and consequently a much clearer vowel, in the last syllable: 'pon-TIFF-ick-ate', IPA: /pɒn 'tɪf ɪ ,keɪt/. It means 'to speak in a pompous way', 'to lay down the law', or, more generally and prejudicially, 'to carry on as if one's words carried the authority of the Bishop of Rome' or 'to speak as if you thought you were the Pope'.