Etymology of Court
In this report, I have attempted to display a general understanding of how the word court arrived in the English language and suggest reasons for its evolution. Much of the challenge has been determining what of the information I could present. Length restrictions and the condition set out, to use The Norton Anthology of English Literature as the only source to show the synchronic use of the word, have forced me to take a more narrow approach. Since court is a polysemic word I decided that rather then dwelling on the changes in all of its senses, I would attempt to acknowledge why this occurred. The latter part of the essay is spent discussing how court has branched its meaning to be used in the adjective courteous and how it operates as a verb.
The etymology of the word court is a complex study. By looking at its roots, we find the word dates back to Latin origin. In Latin, curia meant a senate house. When Julius Caesar ruled, the Curia Julia was the name given to the senate house he started. The similar sounding curtus, meant short. It seems that both of these words became the word cort in Old French. This is relevant because after the Norman Conquest, French borrow words began to appear in English, including court. Intriguingly, court has never meant “to be short” in the English language. A third Latin word, cohors gave court a new meaning again. Cohors had meant an enclosed yard for housing poultry. By 1300, Englishmen were using court to mean “A clear space enclosed by walls or surrounded by buildings” (Oxford English Dictionary Online (OED) 2000, court). Hence, the English “court” became a polysemic word.
Albert C. Baugh places court in the group of “Governmental and Administrative Words” that appeared in the century and a half following 1250, in his book, A History of the English Language. He suggests “We should expect that English would owe many of its words dealing with government and administration to the language of those who for more than two hundred years made public affairs their chief concern” (1978, 168-169). By including court in this category we can make some conclusions regarding its evolution. Though the political institution has always existed, its structure is volatile and subject to change. In fact, one of the primary (and perhaps the most important) engines of historical change has been the constant transformation of the political state. Since our lexicon evolves to adhere to our present day needs, the word court has had to alter its implications to suit the political climate of the moment. At one time, using court in the context of a place where people would be found to be innocent or guilty of a crime would suggest a place where a monarch would decide the fate of the accused. A modern day notion of this scenario invests the power to decide the destiny of the individual to a jury, an arbitrarily chosen group of members from society. In both circumstances the court is a part of a function of...