Some etymological—and political—lessons of “condemn”

The word condemn is surprisingly related to the Irish word for “poem.” 

White supremacists rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia on Saturday, leading to the death of three people, including Heather Heyer, a counter-protester driven down by an Ohio terrorist with neo-Nazi sympathies. It took President Trump a woeful two days to directly condemn this violence and hate—and even then, his “strongest possible terms” left many wanting. In the wake of these horrid events, today’s post will focus on the origin of the word condemn.

Condemn, as in to “declare a building unfit for use,” first appears in the 18th century. (Pixabay

Condemn: etymological “damage” control? 

English borrowed condemn from the French in the 14th century. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first attests the verb in 1340 as “to find guilty” or “convict.” And indeed, the earliest instances of condemn are judicial in nature, used especially to express penalties, e.g., condemned to death. By the 1400s, condemn was already expanding to its sense of “censure” today.

If you thought the silent n in condemn, though pronounced in derived forms like condemnation and condemnatory, was troublesome, it used to have a p. That 1340 OED citation reads “condempnyd.” This p pops up in the word’s roots, too: Old French had condemner and condempner, and their source, Latin, had condemnare and condempnare. Featuring the prefix cum (“together,” here “altogether”), condem(p)nare is an intensive form of dam(p)nare, “to convict, sentence”—also origin of damn, damage, indemnify, and indemnity. The verb is based on a noun, damnum, “damage, harm, loss, injury.” 

Due to ease of pronunciation, condemn’s p fell away, the n fell silent in its verbal forms,  and we’re left with an m sound. But it was this very m that wedged its way (in a process called epenthesis) into damnum’s more ancient root: *dap-no, a “damage entailing liability,” according to the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (AHD). *Dap-no is based on *dap-, “an apportion (in exchange).” The AHD provides a fascinating note on this root worth quoting at length:

Derivates of the root dap-…furnish a useful window on the nature of reciprocal exchange relationships, which were central to the ancient Indo-European peoples. In their societies, and in Proto-Indo-European society itself, a gift entailed a countergift, and an act causing damage entailed payment of recompense. The root dap- embodies the notion of apportionment in a reciprocal exchange relationship of either sort. In Latin, the word damnum, from a suffixed form *dap-no-, meant “damage entailing liability.” Its Old Irish cognate, duán (also from *dap-no  [and dán in modern Irish]), however, meant “poem.” How the same Indo-European form can come to mean “damage entailing liability” in one language and “poem” in another makes perfect sense in light of the relationship between the Indo-European poet and his patron (typically a king): the poet sang the patron’s fame, and in return the patron bestowed largesse on the poet. The relationship was vital to both parties: the king’s livelihood depended on the poet’s singing his praises (in Ireland, for example, a “king without poets” was proverbial for “nothing”), and the poet lived off the largesse bestowed by the king. The poem therefore was a vehicle of this reciprocal exchange relationship; it was a gift entailing a countergift just as surely as damages entail reparation.

Contemporary politics, like ancient etymology, knows reciprocal exchange all too well. The alt-right praise Donald Trump—a man whose bigotry we’ve seen well evidenced even here on a little blog dedicated to word origins—and so it’s not surprising to see his reluctance to condemn the disgusting, and deadly, white nationalism that rocked Charlottesville. And yet even with the issuance of a condemnation, we will need so much more than words to counter racism.

m ∫ r ∫

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4 thoughts on “Some etymological—and political—lessons of “condemn”

  1. Yeah….you should leave your political views out of your blogs; you’ve lost a reader thanks to your biased rhetoric.


    1. It’s a sorry state of affairs when an individual is admonished for stating their political views on their own blog. What would you have Christine Bertrand? That only extreme right-wingers are allowed to air their views. I guess you think that such people are the only ones who don’t employ biased rhetoric.

      John you may have lost a reader, but you have gained another. And hopefully many more.


    2. Biased, my patootie. He took BACK everything he said even AFTER he “condemned” it. The KKK, who he associated himself w/ especially after receiving PRAISE from David DUKES after he took it back, are filthy murderers.
      Someone in my family was murdered on September 11, 2001. The void it suddenly creates, by taking that person from your life, appears to be a neverending feeling of angst. I can’t even hear abt people being killed w/out reacting badly to it, and TRUMP claims he cares so damn much about people being wrongly murdered, then he does this and removes all doubt that he ever cared for anyone but himself.
      There are NOT “many sides” to what happened in Charlottesville unless you’re in to blaming the VICTIM for her own death. People don’t ‘get themselves murdered’ and the only sides to someone running over someone else with a car are the murder victim’s side and the WRONG view
      I can’t believe anyone thinks there are “many sides” to that.


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