Making an “agreement”: a gratifying etymology

This past weekend, nearly 200 nations reached the Paris Agreementa landmark effort to combat climate change.

Now there’s a pleasing word these days: agreement. It’s yet more pleasing if we consider its etymology, and one we should be quite grateful for, too.

Let's shake on it. "Agreement." Doodle by me.
Let’s shake on it. “Agreement.” Doodle by me.

Agreement

It’s apt, I suppose, that the historic climate agreement was negotiated in Paris: agreement is borrowed from the French agrement. English’s agreement is evidenced in the early 1400s. It named – perhaps not unlike the very pact that prompted this post – a binding legal agreement between two or more parties.

At the heart of agreement, I’m sure you’ll agree, is agree. This word also comes from French: agréer“to please.” Evidenced earlier in Middle English (and French) than agreement, this verb first meant “to please” or “to be pleased with.”

According to the Oxford English Dictionary‘s (OED) record, we see agree’s modern senses of “consent” and “shared opinion” emerging by the end of the 1400s. The adjective agreeable, however, still preserves this word’s original notion of “pleasing.” And when food, say, does not agree with you, you are also getting a taste – or distaste – for the word’s historical meaning.

Now, the French verb agréer reaches its own kind of accord. The word brings together two parties: à gré, an expression meaning “favorably” or “according to one’s pleasure,” as Walter Skeat glosses them. Here, this à means “to,” while gré means “pleasure,” “goodwill,” or simply “will.”

Live gree or die hard

The French gré shows up in some other English words, if you dig around in the OED. In fact, it shows up as gree, “favor” or “goodwill,” now an archaic Middle English borrowing from the French and largely loaned in phrases such as in gree, with good greeout of gree, or to make gree. It shows up, too, in maugre, also an archaic word – signifying “ill will” as well as “in spite of” – taken from a French expression that ultimately joins mal (“bad”) and that same gré.

If there is a mal gré, surely there is a bon gré? Indeed. French has de bon gré (“willingly”). It even has the expression bon gré mal gré, “like it or not” or “willy-nilly,” which English once borrowed as bongre maugre, a fun sort of slant-rhyming reduplication.

So, we’ve seen many degrees of gré(No, the –gree in degree is not related, though degrees were a hot topic at the Paris talks.) But where does it come from? The French gré ultimately develops from Latin’s grātus“pleasing” or “grateful.” This same grātus graced us with gracegratitudegrateful, and congratulate.

The Paris Agreement is not perfect, to be sure, but I think these cousins of agreement apply well here. And doing nothing about climate change would be, um, a disgrace.

m ∫ r ∫ 

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