The etymological “plea” of “please”

One of the most moving responses to Parkland, Florida, site of just latest mass school shooting in the US, has been a single word: please.

David Hogg, 17-year-old survivor of the massacre at his high school, has emerged as a forceful voice of a burgeoning youth movement for gun reform. Speaking to CNN, Hogg exhorted: “Please! We are children. You guys are, like, the adults. Take action, work together, come over your politics, and get something done.”

Lori Alhadeff lost her 14-year-old daughter, Alyssa, to the gunmen. Before CNN’s cameras, her unimaginable grief boiled into a stirring admonition: “President Trump, please do something! Do something. Action! We need it now! These kids need safety now!”

These are powerful pleas of please—and two words joined together by a common root.

A please resounding like a gavel to order. Plea originates as a term for a “lawsuit,” a form of the same Latin verb that gives us please. (Pixabay)

An implacable etymology

English borrows please from the French plaisir in the 14th century, when the verb meant “to be agreeable (to someone)” or “satisfy, delight.” It evolved into a number of phrases, of course, such as please you or so please you (15th century, “may it be agreeable to you”) and if you please (16th century).

One construction, an imperative please used to introduce a request, begins emerging in Scottish English in the mid-16th century; the verb was often followed by an infinitive, e.g., please to answer my question. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) says this form probably got shortened to yield the adverbial please, which calls to varying degrees of politeness and urgency or some action, as we heard from Hogg and Alhadeff. This please, which we can transpose all around a sentence though packs a punch at the front, is well-established in the record by the late 18th century.

Behind the French plaisir is the Latin placere, “to satisfy, give pleasure to,” a form of placare, “to appease, soothe.” We get placate and placid from placare. Placere, for its part, was compounded with an intensifying com- prefix to give us complacent, originally “very pleasing” before shading towards “smug or uncritical self-satisfaction”—precisely what Hogg and Alhadeff are trying to counter with their implacable pleas.

Plea and plead, as it happens, also comes from Latin’s placere. By way of French plaid/plait, plea is issued from the Latin placitum, an opinion or agreement. It’s a noun form of placere, literally “that which pleases.” In the Middle Ages, courts began using placitum as a legal term for a “lawsuit,” and it inspired the verbal placitare, “to plead at court,” eventually becoming that very plead via French.

Since plead is a Romance borrowing, its should follow the regular paradigm of taking -ed to mark the past tenses: pleaded. This is technically considered the “correct” form. but we English speakers can’t resist the charms of irregularity. So we modeled plead/pled on lead/led and speed/sped, and the irregular pled has become a perfectly acceptable past/participial form of the verb despite any nitpicking from the grammarians. Curiously, the same impulse, and some good old historic sound changes, made us treat the likes of lead/led as irregular verbs though they weren’t originally in Old English.

We claim we want order in the English language, but we tolerate inconsistencies just fine.

And we claim we want safety for our kids, for our schools, for our society. The please’s of Hogg and Alhadeff are proving just how Americans have come to tolerate anything but safety—and I, for one, hope their pleas will be loud enough to bring us to some to some sense, to some order. 

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One thought on “The etymological “plea” of “please”

  1. amazing, and here I was thinking with all the news coverage that the word please, meant whinny little twats! Firearms have always been a part of Americana, and they are our God given right to own! I say a government that takes away our rights is a government you can’t trust. I for one will not be a good little sheep, like the ones you quoted in this piece.


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