Thursday, April 9, 2020

Language Of Confusion: Take Your Seats, Part IV

I think we’ve finished with all the seat words that make sense. Now we’re onto the WTF ones. But they really are all descended from the Proto Indo European sed-, to sit. It’s just a hell of a journey from there to here.

For example, assess. Yes, really. It showed up in the early fifteenth century, specifically meaning “to fix the amount of a tax/fine” by a judge’s assistant (seriously, not the judge, their assistant). Then in 1809, it started to be used in the sense of evaluating a property (like, for taxation), and then it wasn’t until 1934 that it meant judging the value of something in general. It’s less than a hundred years old in that sense! As for its origins, it comes from the Anglo French assesser, from the Medieval Latin assessare, to fix a tax on, from the classical Latin assessus, sitting by. Assessus is from assidere/adsidere, to assess, or to sit beside (as in, beside a judge, thus assisting them). The a-/ad- means to, and the rest is from our old friend sedere, to sit, and that’s from sed-. So because assistants sit by judges, we have assess.

The next -sess word, obsess, showed up in the sixteenth century meaning to besiege. Soon after it showed up, it started to mean to be haunted by evil spirits, and then in the nineteenth century, people started using it in the psychological sense of being haunted by a fixed idea. Obsess comes from the classical Latin obsessus, which could mean siege or spare, from the verb obsidere, blockade or besiege. The ob- means against, while sedere is to sit, so it’s to sit against. Which… I mean, I guess that’s kind of besieging something.

Possess showed up earlier than the above, in the late fourteenth century, actually from possession, which showed up in the mid fourteenth century. Both words come from the classical Latin possidere, to possess. The front half of the word is thought to be from poti-, powerful (you know, like potent), so this word is to sit powerfully. I guess if you possess something, you have power over it.

The last of the sess words is actually session, which showed up in the late fourteenth century meaning the period sitting of a court. It comes from the Old French session, which could mean assembly, or the act of sitting (yeah, really). It’s from the classical Latin sessionem, session, the action noun version of sedere. So because a court is seated, we have session. Still, it’s refreshingly straightforward.

Finally this week, not a sess word but a word I’m just shoving in here, surcease. It showed up in the early fifteenth century, coming from the Anglo French surseser, and the Old French sursis, the past participle of the verb surseoir. That word is from the classical Latin supersedere, which already appeared on this blog when I did supersede. I probably should have done these words together, but whatever. Basically, surcease is from supersede, literally to sit on top of, but they shortened the super and decided to spell it like cease. Which, for the record, has nothing to do with these words.e



  1. I will sit powerfully over you!
    Are you sure assess has nothing to do with judges or their assistants sitting on their asses?

  2. Sit powerfully? They really stretch meanings, don't they?

  3. Session does kind of make sense.

  4. Oh, man, I'm going to have to figure out some usage for obsess as being haunted!

  5. Wow.... English is indeed a powerful language.

  6. I can't recall an instance of surcease being used.


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