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: 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.