The Japanese Emperor suggests he wants to “abdicate.” Where does this uncommon word come from?

While he didn’t directly use the word (or its Japanese equivalent), Japanese Emperor Akihito made his intent clear: In a rare public address, the Emperor suggested he wishes to abdicate, citing concerns about how his advanced age and declining health will hinder his performance. Just as rare, at least in the broader public conversation, is this word abdicate. Let’s have a quick look at its origins.


To abdicate is “to renounce or relinquish one’s office.” We often hear the word in a monarch abdicating the throne. With some  variation, the English language has been abdicating since the mid-1500s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary’s accounts. The modern abdicate, as news reports are so characterizing Akihito’s aims, is evidenced by the early 1600s. Its earliest meaning, though, refers to disowning a child, as the Oxford English Dictionary so attests it in 1532.

Abdicate derives directly from the Latin abdicāre, which could variously mean “to resign, renounce, reject, depose,” and “disinherit,” among other senses. The ancient Romans used abdicate in a manner similar to English’s current office-abdicating. The word joins the prefix ab-, “away from”, and dicāre, “to proclaim,” more basically “to say.” So, to abdicate has a literal sense of “stating away,” the notion being of a renunciation. 

Latin’s dicāre is seen throughout English in many other such derivations as dictionary and edict. Its Indo-European base, *deik-, means “to point out,” which also yields the English word teach. While abdication is unusual in act and word, Akihito’s honest, though humbling, self-assessment may just have a thing or two to teach us about leadership.

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