Taking an etymological “census”

The Trump administration has added a controversial citizenship question to the 2020 US census. Opponents have quickly criticized and sued over the move, arguing it will deter immigrants from responding, not only resulting in an accurate count of the population but also violating the very US constitution.

Let’s survey the origin of census.

A taking of the Roman census, 2nd century BCE (Novaroma/Louvre). Back then, you came to the census-taker, they didn’t come knocking on your door (or now, email).

Money, morality, and mandates 

The practice of taking a census is ancient, though, as the Latin etymology of the word shows, its purpose has definitely evolved over the millennia.

Census is directly from the Latin census, “a registering and rating of Roman citizens, property,” as Lewis and Short define it in their landmark Latin dictionary.

Held in a public building every five years, the Roman census included an account of the citizen’s full name and of his family, but it was primarily interested in land, slaves, and cattle for taxation purposes—so much so that census came to signify “wealth, property, riches, or tax” more generally.

The Roman census was conducted by a powerful magistrate called a censor. Both words come from the verb censere, “to tax, assess, rate, or estimate.” Indo-European scholars account for censere in the Proto-Indo-European *kens-, “to proclaim, speak solemnly,” underscoring the legal dimensions (and consequences) of historic census-taking.

English adopted census as early as 1613 for a “poll tax,” poll here referring to a “head” and levied on every person, but census was also used in the 1600s in reference to the historic Roman practice.

Forms of the modern population census begin emerging in the 17th and 18th centuries, with the US making a major innovation when it took its first census 1790, fully enumerating its population to determine the number and apportionment of representatives in Congress. This is enshrined in the very US constitution—in the fourth and fifth sentences, in fact:

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons. The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct.

You’ll notice the constitutional requirement of a decennial census includes the infamous, ignominious Three-Fifths Clause, which counted slaves as three-fifths the number of the white population.

Slaves were not citizens, but they were counted for the census. It doesn’t take a constitutional scholar, or hobbyist etymologist, to figure out that the Trump administration’s addition of citizenship question warrants censure—and may well lead immigrants from self-censoring their participation, thereby skewing the funding and congressional representation that the census is designed, and mandated, to achieve.

Perhaps, then, it’s no coincidence that censure and censorship are both related to census.

Among the other duties of the Roman censor was the management of public morals and private conduct, branding their reprobates with marks of ignominy and infamy and punishing them by lowering their social rank. We get the English censor, most familiar to us as a verb for “suppressing media content considered objectionable” since the 1880s, from Rome’s censor, as we do censure from the penalties they could inflict.

Other derivatives include an excise tax and recension, a revised edition of a text. With lawsuits against the citizenship question underway, we’ll see if we get a recension of the 2020 US census.

m ∫ r ∫

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