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Monday, October 30, 2017

Indict

OK, what's that ridiculous C doing in the word "indict"? Or, conversely, why don't we pronounce it "in DICKT"? Which, come to think of it, might be appropriate. It could mean "to accuse someone of being a dick". (How full our prisons would be!)

But no, it's pronounced "in DITE". And back in the 1300s when we borrowed the word from French, it was sensibly spelled "indite" (sometimes "endite"). The French had done their usual consonant-dropping thing on the Latin original indictāre (to declare), in turn derived from indicere (proclaim, appoint) from in- (towards) + dicere (pronounce, utter).

As with so many other words, the Latinomania of the Renaissance put paid to the sensible spelling: "It had a C in Latin so it should have a C in English!!!!". And there we are.

You may have been puzzled by the apparent use of this word in Handel's beautiful Coronation Anthem, "My heart is inditing", a setting of Psalm 45. This started out as the same word as "indict", but branched out to mean "express in words" rather than "accuse".  The King James Version is
My heart is inditing a good matter: I speak of the things which I have made touching the king: my tongue is the pen of a ready writer.
As this sense is now obsolete, modern translations have
My heart is stirred by a noble theme
    as I recite my verses for the king;
    my tongue is the pen of a skillful writer.
My heart is overflowing with a good thought;
    I am speaking my works for the king;
    my tongue is the pen of a skilled scribe.
https://youtu.be/GZ7cGnucGNU


"Stirred by a noble theme" indeed.
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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.