Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
We rarely see the words probate and reprobate used together, so we can probably be forgiven for not having noticed that the latter is just the former with re- affixed to it. That being the case, does that mean the two words are etymologically related?
Short answer: Yes!
Probate court deals with the disbursing a deceased’s property according to his or her last will and testament. But a probate lawyer’s responsibility isn’t simply to read the will and do what it says; the crux of probate law is proving the authenticity and legality of the will itself before it can be exercised. Like most legal jargon, the word probate comes from Latin, in this case from the verb probare “to try, test, or prove.” The word prove itself stems from the same root.
We all know that the prefix re- often indicates a doing-again, as in reprint, reload, realign, and refresh. So we might conclude that reprobate means something like “prove again” or “something that is proven a second time” — but it doesn’t. In common language, a reprobate is a depraved person, a scoundrel. So what gives?
That re- prefix can also mean “back, backward,” as it does in the words recall, regurgitate, and recede. In some words, it isn’t perfectly clear which meaning a re- prefix indicates, because doing something again can involve going back to the beginning. Consider, for example, rejuvenate. Juvenis is the Latin word for “young” (whence juvenile); whether rejuvenate means “to be young again” or “to go back to youthfulness,” the outcome is the same.
But reprobate isn’t in that gray area. The re- prefix can only indicate “back,” and more than just backward motion, but the opposite of what follows it. So reprobate breaks down etymologically to “not proved.” In the early 15th century, the word took root in English as a verb, first meaning “disapprove” but quickly taking on the stronger meaning of “reject, condemn.” By the mid-16th century, the verb had evolved into a noun meaning “one who is condemned” (that is, by God).
Though the religious connotation has faded, a reprobate is still not something one wants to be. Probate court was established in large part to guard against reprobates who would submit counterfeit wills naming themselves heirs to family fortunes.
Reprobate as a verb is still around, too, but usually only in legal jargon. If a probate lawyer reprobates a will, that means it is rejected. Its opposite, approbate, means to accept a will as legal and genuine.
The legal terms probate, reprobate, and approbate have the more common (and closely related) counterparts prove, disapprove and disprove, and approve. We also have the word reprove; its original meaning was “refute,” but with both disapprove and disprove edging in on its territory, reprove evolved to mean “scold or censure.”
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