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Every Word Nerd Is Looking Up ‘Indictment’ — But Why Is It Spelled That Way?

For word nerds, checking up on what’s hot in dictionary look-ups can be an addictive form of procrastination.

As of noon today, these were the top five on Merriam-Webster, along with their super-quick definitions:

  1. conspiracy: An agreement to commit an illegal act

  2. collusion, indictment: Two Latin-based legal terms

  3. dossier: a file containing detailed records

  4. debase: To lower in status, esteem

  5. imbroglio a public scandal

Let’s focus on indictment, where lookups are up 3600%. (If indictment was a stock, many of us would be buying.)

Indictment, according to the Cambridge Dictionary, means “a formal statement of accusation” in American English. But it turns out that indictment’s linguistic roots tell the story of the conquest of Europe, which to summarize, happened many times.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary explains:

“Indict (and indictment), like many legal terms in English, comes from Latin through the French spoken in Britain by the Norman conquerors who ruled and set down the laws during the Middle Ages. The French word enditer (“to write,” “to compose”) became indite in English, and was spelled in various ways that showed similar pronunciation.”

But conquest does not mean credit, as many of us know from touring Europe. In Spain, plenty of famous churches were once mosques, but it can be hard to tell with just the naked eye, centuries later. Unlike holy buildings, which were often destroyed and repurposed by conquerors, the Latin roots of the word indictment were acknowledged and saved — by scholars in the Renaissance.

Scholars knew that the Latin root for this word was indicere, from dicere which means “to say.” The Merriam-Webster dictionary helpfully points out that the English word dictate is a close relative.

Stuck with indite, scholars decided to use one of the only powers they had — to dictate spelling. Maybe they felt as generally powerless as many of us do now, reading the headlines of their day, moving their eyes between conspiracy and indictment.

So the scholars changed the spelling from indite to indict, preserving the Latin, and dealing French a blow.

But don’t cry for French.

Both French and Old Norse had their day in the sun recently, when Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona repeatedly used the word “regret.”

Here’s a snippet of Flake’s speech, built on the word “regret”:

“It must also be said that I rise today with no small measure of regret. Regret because of the state of our disunion. Regret because of the disrepair and destructiveness of our politics. Regret because of the indecency of our discourse. Regret because of the coarseness of our leadership. Regret for the compromise of our moral authority.”

I found myself wondering about the roots of the word, and why regret, repeated and repeated, felt like a form of weeping. The word regret — the primary definition is the verb is “to mourn the loss or death of” and the secondary definition is “to miss very much” — was first used circa 1500, or smack in the middle of the Renaissance, when scholars were busy preserving the roots of indictment, probably because they regretted what was happening to language, right in front of their eyes.

Regret is rooted in the Middle English regretten and the Anglo-French regreter.

In Old French, regreter, “to lament”, comes from combining re- or the “intensive prefix” and greter, “to weep.” Merriam Webster suggests that the word may be “akin to Old Norse grātato, to weep.”

That’s it, I thought, when I came across those last bits in Old French and Old Norse. Greter — to weep. Grātato, to weep.

What Flake was doing was weeping for America, and what it has become. He was mourning its loss and missing it. And if a senator repeatedly saying “regret” isn’t an “indictment,” in all the languages represented in the word, I don’t know what is.

Aviya Kushner is The Forward’s language columnist and the author of The Grammar of God (Spiegel & Grau). Follow her on Twitter at @Aviya Kushner

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