Today, in spite of ourselves, all of our eyes will be on Donald Trump in the first Republican debate of the 2016 presidential season. As his personality makes clear, Trump is not one for actual debating. But he is, we might say, quite given to the etymology of debate. Let’s have a quick look at the etymology of this word.

“Battery.” Doodle by me.


The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first cites debate in the Middle English noun form of debat in 1340, signifying “strife,” “contention,” and “quarreling.” By the end of the century, the record shows the word shading towards “contention in argument,” and by the start of the 16th century, “a controversy or discussion,” specifically a formal treatment of a question of public interest (OED).

If you’re a regular reader of the Mashed Radish, you may have already – and correctly – guessed that the word has passed into English from French. Here, the source is the Old French debat, from the verb debatre, “to fight.” Indeed, the earliest verb form of debate in English is “to fight.” The French debat and debatre evolved from the Latin debattere, also meaning “to fight.”

Once again, if you’re a regular reader of the blog, you may have already – and correctly – separated debattere into its components, de- and battere. This de– denotes an action of “completely.” Originally, the prefix indicated “down,” as in “down to the very bottom,” hence “completely.” However, in the historical forms of debate, there is record of the prefix as des-, in which case the source could be dis-, “apart.”

In battere, you might recognize the derivatives of batter (including the culinary sense), battery, and battle. It is also featured in combat (literally, “to fight with each other”); abate (“to beat down”); and rebate (“to beat back”). Abate directly comes from a French verb which also supplies abattoir, a “slaughterhouse.” Battere has earlier forms of battuere and battuāre.

Some propose battere is from the Proto-Indo-European *bhau-, “to strike,” making it cognate to words like beat, buttock, and halibut, as well as the base of refute.  

Duracell and Energizer batteries will certainly debate that their batteries last the longest. Yes, these batteries are indeed related to debate. Battery first named the action of beating, which was transferred to instruments that can do so, such as artillery. Artillery discharges were later likened to the electrical discharges of batteries, apparently, and so the word was applied to the technology themselves. The first attestation, appropriately enough and according to the OED, goes to Benjamin Franklin –  a statesman, scientist, and Founding Father, among other items on his impressive résumé, who, I think we can say without debate, is quite unlike the Donald.


m ∫ r ∫

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