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Friday, May 13, 2011

Count me in

This week many of us in Canada and around the world have been filling in our census forms. “Census” is a Latin word, derived from censere (assess, estimate). The ancient Roman census was a registering of Roman citizens and their property for purposes of taxation. A particularly famous one caused the visit of a certain carpenter from Nazareth and his heavily pregnant wife to the town of Bethlehem. Just think if they had been able to do it online, as we now can. The word was revived for modern enumerations of the population when the newly formed United States conducted its first census in 1790.
Interestingly, the words “censor” and “censure” have the same origin. The Roman officials in charge of the census were “censors”, and their powers extended beyond counting and taxing to supervising public morals as well. A “censure” was one of their judgements. It came to mean any kind of judgement, and subsequently a particularly negative one.

1 comment:

  1. Hello,

    It rings in my ears a brief mention of "censured" (with what appeared to be its British pronunciation) in one (or, all) tv series/movie adaptation of "Pride and Prejudice".

    But Jane Austen was only born in 1775 - if I recall correctly - which makes it impossible for this to be an earlier attestation for the use of the word, although Jane Austin apparently finished a first draft (called otherwise) at the still tender age of 21.

    Sorry, I tried! :) I just couldn't believe the word in its most recent reincarnation was this young.

    But how about the word "incensed", which seems to be related to "burning", "incendiate", "ceneri" (it) - "ashes". Is "census" related to these too ?

    Thank you!


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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.