In this report, I have attempted to display a general understanding of how the word court arrived in the English language and suggest reasons for its evolution. Much of the challenge has been determining what of the information I could present. Length restrictions and the condition set out, to use The Norton Anthology of English Literature as the only source to show the synchronic use of the word, have forced me to take a more narrow approach. Since court is a polysemic word I decided that rather then dwelling on the changes in all of its senses, I would attempt to acknowledge why this occurred. The latter part of the essay is spent discussing how court has branched its meaning to be used in the adjective courteous and how it operates as a verb.
The etymology of the word court is a complex study. By looking at its roots, we find the word dates back to Latin origin. In Latin, curia meant a senate house. When Julius Caesar ruled, the Curia Julia was the name given to the senate house he started. The similar sounding curtus, meant short. It seems that both of these words became the word cort in Old French. This is relevant because after the Norman Conquest, French borrow words began to appear in English, including court. Intriguingly, court has never meant “to be short” in the English language. A third Latin word, cohors gave court a new meaning again. Cohors had meant an enclosed yard for housing poultry. By 1300, Englishmen were using court to mean “A clear space enclosed by walls or surrounded by buildings” (Oxford English Dictionary Online (OED) 2000, court).
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Hence, the English “court” became a polysemic word.
Albert C. Baugh places court in the group of “Governmental and Administrative Words” that appeared in the century and a half following 1250, in his book, A History of the English Language. He suggests “We should expect that English would owe many of its words dealing with government and administration to the language of those who for more than two hundred years made public affairs their chief concern” (1978, 168-169).
By including court in this category we can make some conclusions regarding its evolution. Though the political institution has always existed, its structure is volatile and subject to change. In fact, one of the primary (and perhaps the most important) engines of historical change has been the constant transformation of the political state. Since our lexicon evolves to adhere to our present day needs, the word court has had to alter its implications to suit the political climate of the moment. At one time, using court in the context of a place where people would be found to be innocent or guilty of a crime would suggest a place where a monarch would decide the fate of the accused. A modern day notion of this scenario invests the power to decide the destiny of the individual to a jury, an arbitrarily chosen group of members from society. In both circumstances the court is a part of a function of society that is supported by its government. Its connotations, in these particular instances, denote stipulations, which change the word’s meaning.
The fourteenth century European life was much different than we know today. The ruling body was comprised of a leader: the king, and a small elite. Its duty was to rule and defend the nation. This position earned these courtiers respect in society. Therefore, belonging to the court suggested certain behaviour: to be courteous. In this sense, we are witness to an institution being personified by certain qualities which we admire, as defined, “Having such manners as befit the court of a prince, having the bearing of a courtly gentleman in intercourse with others; graciously polite and respectful of the position and feelings of others; kind and complaisant in conduct to others” (OED, courteous).
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When Geoffrey Chaucer was writing he employed this adjective, “Curteis he was, lowly, and servisable, and carf biforn his fader at the table…” (Norton Anthology of English Literature (NAEL) 1996, 72).
In this quote Chaucer demonstrates how courteous has retained its original meaning. The people reading this in the thirteen hundreds would have made more of an association between courteous and the thrown, however, the implication of politeness has persisted. It is interesting to look at courteous before looking at court acting as a verb. Courteous is personifying the institution while court reverses the scenario to give people institutional traits.
Court, as a verb didn’t exist in the English lexicon before approximately 1515. Now an obsolete expression, it was initially used to mean, “To be or reside at court, to frequent the court”(OED, court).
A clear relationship between people and the institution has been defined. In this application of the verb, a person who belongs to the court embodies the court. By the end of the century Edmund Spencer would use court in a new sense. “When as this knight nigh to the Ladie drew, With lovely court he gan her entertaine…” (NAEL 1996, 351) meant “to pay amorous attention to, seek to gain the affections of, make love to (with a view of marriage), pay addresses to, woo” (OED, verb).
I deduce two theories for why this verb evolved.
One of the major roles of a courtier would have been to gain favour with not only the king but also other members of court in order to acquire allies. It would seem a logical step for this behaviour to be coined as courting. Consequently, we see in The Faerie Queene the knight trying to obtain the favour of the lady. Within the same century as Spencer was writing, a court of love was created; “an institution said to have existed in southern France in the Middle ages, a tribunal composed of lords and ladies deciding questions of love and gallantry…” (OED court).
This may also explain why suddenly the verb involved itself with the matters of the heart. In either case, the noun has influenced the verb.
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This paper has discussed the word court. It has covered the roots and origin of the word, why it is polysemic, how it came into the English lexicon, reasons for why it has evolved in English, and how it has become an adjective and a verb. By looking at examples of text and making a comparison of connotation in past and present, a synchronic examination has helped display the diachronic word. You may argue that there are no modern text examples in this paper and many of the words’ senses have been overlooked. While this is true, my goal was to display how court has evolved as a word in our language, not its most recent usage and meanings. Considering the conditions for the assignment, I feel my purpose was best served by the focus I have taken. In conclusion, this paper has demonstrated the awesome history of a single word, manipulated by language, time and history.