One word that has made the rounds over the past week was “record” — that is, scientists and meteorologists noted that summer 2019 was the hottest on record, which is something we should be aware of here in Alaska. For instance, the entire continent of Africa experienced their hottest recorded July, as had most of Europe.
The noun “record” developed about a century after the verb form in the 14th century and referred to any kind of official testimony committed to writing. It comes from the Old French verb “recorder,” meaning to repeat, recite, or make known. In the case of the noun, then, the Old French “record” meant a statement or report. Toward the end of the 14th century, the English started using the word “record” for a written account of some event.
That is partially how we’re using “record” now and in the context of climate change, but there also seems to be the connotation of achievement behind it when we say things like “the hottest on record” or “record-breaking summer.” We began to use the word in this way in 1883, when it signified an achievement in sports.
I’m a huge fan of basketball, but I had a friend in college who had me beat when it came to naming various achievements in that sport. I always marveled at his ability to recall seemingly random statistical information about players and teams. Many of us either have a friend like that, or perhaps we are that person.
My friend’s mental, record-keeping ability is certainly in line with the etymology of the word: from the Latin “ecordari,” which literally means to restore from the heart.
The prefix “re-,” in this case, means to bring back once more. It comes from the Indo-European “wret,” meaning to turn, and has virtually infinite uses. In fact, etymologists have noted that since there are so many iterations of this root, it’s impossible to record them all.
The base word, “cor,” is the Latin word for heart. Even the PIE root, “kerd,” means heart, and forms parts of heart-related words like cardiac and cardio, as well as courage, credit and miscreant. You see, in ancient times, people believed that the seat of memory was the heart, not the brain or mind, as we do today. The idiom “to learn by heart” is a remnant of that belief.
The protesters in Hong Kong, embroiled in a three-month long confrontation with Chinese authorities, have definitely shown a lot of heart. And it paid off: Just this week, the Hong Kong government announced that it was withdrawing its extradition bill, the protesters’ main point of contention. While other demands — such as expanding voting rights and establishing an independent council to oversee police conduct — will not be addressed, this is still a huge victory for the protesters.
“Extradition” is one of those interesting words that, instead of it being formed by historical and cultural conditions over centuries, was, in fact, straight-up invented.
In this case, it was Voltaire who coined the term, but extradition was not in wide use until a book about an officer in the Napoleonic Wars, Michel (or Marshal) Ney, was published in 1833. After Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, army officers were rounded up and court-martialed; many were slated for execution, including Ney.
But Ney’s lawyer was crafty and found a loophole. Ney was born in a town in Sarrelouis, in France, but, according to the Treaty of Paris at the end of Napoleon’s war, Prussia annexed that part of France (Sarrelouis is today a province in Germany). Therefore, his lawyer argued, he was a citizen of Prussia, not France, and could not be tried by a French court. So, the argument became one of extraditing Ney from Prussia to France.
Extradite literally means to hand out something: ex- meaning out, and the base word tradition, meaning handing over, like the passing on of a, well, tradition. In the case of legal extradition, though, it’s the handing over of a person from one place to another.
And get this: Ney was about to win his case on the grounds that he was, indeed, a Prussian citizen. He was about to go free. But then he couldn’t contain himself and blurted out in court: “Je suis Francais et je resterai Francais!” (”I am French and I will remain French.”) The judges accepted the plea, voting on Dec. 6, 1815, to execute him. Ney was executed that next day.
I’m not sure I’d count that as a win in his record.
Jared Griffin is associate professor of English at Kodiak College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.